How many people had the Atlanta Hawks overcoming the Miami Heat in the play-in tournament to book a first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics? My guess is not many of us. Yet, here we are, four days away from the start of the postseason, with the Hawks officially set to be Boston’s first opponent.
There’s not much we can take from the season-ending contest between these two sides, both rested their core guys, and neither revealed too much in the way of play-calling. The Celtics should have a field day scoring the ball — the question is, can they limit Atlanta’s offense?
Playoff basketball is often contingent on matchups, especially the earlier games before the coaching staff makes adjustments and looks to set up shop on the defensive end. Who are the defensive weak links? Who do you need to load up on? And who can be left alone while helping off to limit a star’s chances of penetrating?
All of these questions are fair and, to some extent, will have an impact on the outcome of a game or two. Let’s take a look at some of the primary matchups we can expect to see on Saturday when the Celtics will be looking to put in a statement performance against a team they have beaten three times already this season.
Trae Young vs. the Celtics guard rotation
We all know that Marcus Smart will be the guard who is tasked with being Trae Young’s primary defender; however, the Celtics boast an elite backcourt rotation, all of whom are above-average defenders, and will likely spend time guarding Young as Joe Mazzulla looks to keep things fresh and show the All-Star different looks.
Offensively, Young is an elite scoring weapon but has had somewhat of a down year in terms of scoring the rock. According to Cleaning The Glass, Young finished the regular season in the 33rd percentile of guards for three-point percentage, hitting just 34% of his attempts. Instead, Atlanta’s crown jewel looked to get his work done in the mid-range, ranking in the 76th percentile for short mid-range shots (the floater area), 78th percentile for jumpers between the free throw line and perimeter, and 85th percentile for overall midrange.
Accuracy-wise, Young was nothing more than average, though, sitting in the 59th percentile with a 45% conversion rate. Players up their game in the postseason, though, and expecting Young to struggle is a fool's errand.
Derrick White is arguably an All-Defensive guard this year, Marcus Smart is, well, Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon isn’t a slouch on defense either.
Imagine you’re Trae Young and you’ve survived 6 minutes of Derrick White and Marcus Smart just to see Malcolm Brogdon check in— Cousin DPOY (not notable) (@AndrewDoxy) April 12, 2023
It wouldn’t surprise me if Young had some games where he led his team in attempts but ended the contest with 10 points, but it also wouldn’t come as a shock if he went for 50 at least once. Such is the inconsistency in his offensive play this season. Of course, Young also has to guard Boston’s guards, and that’s where things get tricky for him.
There’s no denying that Young is defensively challenged and is often the focus of the opposing team’s offensive game plan, where they target him via switches before going to work. Trying to stick with White and Brogdon when they’re cutting toward the rim is going to test Young’s commitment on that end of the floor and should be an area the Celtics feel comfortable exploiting.
Robert Williams vs. Clint Capela
For a significant portion of Robert Williams’ early career, he drew countless comparisons to Clint Capela as a rim-running rim protector that can influence a game due to his size and leaping ability. Fast forward to present day, and those comparisons have died off. When healthy, Williams is among the best rim runners in the NBA and one of the better passing big men to boot.
Interestingly, Williams has only shared the floor with Capela on six occasions, none of which have come in the past 12 months. However, when facing Atlanta’s primary big man, he is averaging 9.3 points, 8.3 boards, and 1.8 blocks, so it’s clear he’s found ways to be effective around both rims. The bad news is that Capela has averaged a double-double when Williams is on the other side of the floor to him, matching his blocks per game tally too.
Of course, with Boston’s rotation of floor-spacing bigs, Joe Mazzulla may look to attack Capela by drawing him away from the rim and forcing him to guard on the perimeter, which would render a Williams matchup moot. Yet, there will likely be points where we see these two face off, and the winner of those minutes could significantly impact which team controls the paint and their own glass.
Dejounte Murray vs. Jaylen Brown
When the Hawks acquired Dejounte Murray last summer, they did so for a very specific reason: to position a defensive guard alongside Trae Young and improve the team’s overall perimeter defense. Jalen Brown and Murray have matched up against each other twice this season, with the Hawks guard defending the All-NBA candidate for a total of 12 minutes and 30 seconds in which Brown has scored just 6 points on 3-of-10 shooting, going 0-of-4 from deep.
In recent seasons Brown, has developed into a fearsome three-level scorer for the Celtics, blending his quick first step, incredible athleticism, and shot-making ability to turn him into one of the best scoring wings in the NBA — the question is, can Murray hang with him over the course of a multi-game series?
It’s worth noting that Brown has also fared well when forced to guard Murray, which looks like they could potentially cancel each other out or at least limit the other’s ability to have a big impact on a game-to-game basis. This feels like one of those matchups where whichever coach gets their adjustments right is going to get a big return from their guy.
Honorable Mention: Jayson Tatum
It’s Jayson Tatum versus everybody! That’s the way Atlanta will need to approach their games against the All-NBA forward, who will cook whoever is tasked with guarding him should Quin Snyder opt to resist the temptation to throw doubles at him early in the shot clock.
Tatum comes into this series as the clear-cut best player and as such, will be expected to carry the load when the offense gets bogged down in the halfcourt, meaning he will likely see every defender Atlanta can muster, but that’s the price of being a bonafide superstar and the face of a franchise that’s competing for a championship.
The playoffs always provide us with some surprises, and new matchups will appear while others fade into memory, but given the depth of talent and sheer force of will we are expecting to see from the Celtics, I’m expecting this series to be a gentleman’s sweep, perhaps six games at most.