Without Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon, the Boston Celtics will face off against an impressive Atlanta Hawks team while searching for their 8th straight win of the season. Over the past two weeks, Smart has been a significant part of everything good the Celtics have been doing, so his loss will be a real test for Joe Mazzulla’s team and their ability to win ugly.
On the flip side, the Hawks are playing some good basketball at the moment, and are coming into this game following an impressive win over the Milwaukee Bucks — and we’re talking double digits.
As such, Boston will need to be on their A-game if they want to extend their current win streak, and I have some ideas on how they can look to punish some of the Hawks’ deficiencies. Here are my three tickets to triumph heading into Wednesday’s game.
Attack Trae Young
For all of Young’s offensive upside, his defense is still a weak point in his game, so much so, that targeting him as often as possible is always a good strategy. However, you need to be careful of Dejounte Murray, who was acquired in large part to help limit the negative effects that Young’s porous defense was having on the Hawks’ fortunes.
Still, Boston has enough offensive weapons to put Young into early offensive actions and attack the Hawks' defensive rotations as they look to scram their star guard out of unfavorable positions. Whether it be hitting early threes, or shooting the gap to pressure the rim, the Celtics should be able to create gaps in the defense if they pressure Young and force the Hawks into sending help over before their half-court defense is set.
This feels like the ideal game for Jaylen Brown to get hot as an off-ball threat, and to punish Atlanta via cuts and dribble-drive offense.
Avoid Isolation Basketball
Boston is missing their two best ball movers in Smart and Brogdon, which means both Jayson Tatum and Brown will be tasked with initiating more of the offense than they have to begin the season. Sure, we know that Tatum’s playmaking has taken a leap, and he can read the defense as well as any point forward in the league, but a significant part of his hot start to the season has been doing more work off the ball.
Whenever Tatum and Brown are asked to carry a large portion of the Celtics' playmaking workload there is always the risk of the offense stagnating and becoming isolation-heavy, especially if things aren’t going in the Celtics' favor.
However, the Celtics' best chance of winning Wednesday’s game is by continuing to stick to their new offense. Large quantities of isolation basketball isn’t going to get the job done against a much-improved Hawks team.
Set up shop on defense
Wednesday’s game isn’t one to try to win in a shootout. Over the last two weeks, the Hawks have the number 1 ranked defense in the NBA (per Cleaning The Glass) and have been holding teams to 105.6 points per 100 possessions. However, during that same timespan, Atlanta’s offense is ranked 18th.
So, turning the clock back to last season, and forcing the Hawks to grind out a win against a switchable and physical defense might be the best course of action. Run Young off the line, keep John Collins, DeAndre Hunter, Oneyka Okongwu, and Justin Holiday (all in the top 15th percentile around the rim, for their position) away from the rim, and dare everyone not named Trae to beat you from deep.
Without Robert Williams, Smart, and Brogdon, the Hawks project to be a seriously difficult opponent to contain, but Boston have all the pieces to rediscover their elite defensive principles, so perhaps this contest will be the pressure test they need to figure things out.
Winning streaks don’t last forever especially in the NBA, and coming into the game against Atlanta, the Celtics are facing one of their toughest tests of the season to date. However, Tatum and Brown remain the best wing duo in the league, and Al Horford is still a reliable presence in the middle of the court, and that’s before we look at Boston’s shooting off the bench.
I won’t make a prediction for this game, but I will say we’re going to witness a battle on multiple fronts, and this could be the game we look back at and pinpoint as one of the primary reasons Tatum wins the MVP award.