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Celtics-Hawks: Eastern Conference First Round Playoff Series Preview

Boston is heavy favorites as they start their run to Banner 18

NBA: Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks will meet in the first round of the 2023 NBA Playoffs in an Eastern Conference series. Boston is 7-1 all-time against Atlanta in the playoffs. The Hawks won the last matchup in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, after the Celtics took the first seven postseason meetings.

The series schedule is as follows:

· Game 1 – Saturday April 15 at Boston – 3:30 PM ET - ESPN

· Game 2 – Tuesday April 18 at Boston – 7:00 PM ET - NBATV

· Game 3 – Friday April 21 at Atlanta – 7:00 PM ET - ESPN

· Game 4 – Sunday April 23 at Atlanta – 7:00 PM ET - TNT

· Game 5* – Tuesday April 25 at Boston – Time/TV TBD - *if necessary

· Game 6* – Thursday April 27 at Atlanta – Time/TV TBD - *if necessary

· Game 7* – Saturday April 29 at Boston – Time TBD - TNT - *if necessary

During the regular season the teams met three times, with Boston taking all three matchups:

· Boston 126 – Atlanta 101

· Boston 134 – Atlanta 125

· Boston 120 – Atlanta 114

The first matchup was a blowout in Atlanta. The Celtics were without Malcolm Brogdon, Marcus Smart and Rob Williams for that matchup. The Hawks played without Bogdan Bogdanovic. Boston rolled behind a big night from Jaylen Brown and some dominant bench play from Sam Hauser, Luke Kornet and Payton Pritchard. Trae Young and Dejounte Murray combined for 46 points on 19-of-40 shooting for the Hawks in the loss.

In the second game, Boston’s stars led the way. Jayson Tatum put up a 34/15/6 line, while Jaylen Brown scored an efficient 24 points. Malcolm Brogdon added 18 off the bench. Atlanta got 35 points from Trae Young, while Saddiq Bey scored 17 off the Hawks bench. As the score would indicate, it was another offensive shootout in Atlanta.

The third game was the regular season finale. The Celtics bench players dominated the Hawks bench players for long stretches of the game in a victory. There wasn’t really anything to take from this game, as almost all regulars sat, while others made only cameo appearances.

Health Outlook

NBA: Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Both teams come in remarkably healthy. Jaylen Brown is the lone Celtic dealing with anything approaching a worrisome injury, as he has a laceration on his right hand. Boston has said he should be good to go by Game 1.

Marcus Smart missed the last few games of the regular season with a sore neck, but he’s ready to play. And Rob Williams seems past his regular season injury bugaboos and he’s also ready for the playoffs.

The Hawks are coming in fully healthy and ready to go.

Starting Guards

Marcus Smart and Derrick White vs Trae Young and Dejounte Murray

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Derrick White was the only player of this group to appear in all three games, and the third game was a cameo appearance. Marcus Smart played in just one game, while Trae Young and Dejounte Murray both played in the first two games. As such, the middle game of the series is probably the closest representation of what we can expect in the playoffs, as far as strategy and matchups go.

When Boston has the ball, they’ll hunt Trae Young. That will come with both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown seeking direct switches through screen actions. But Boston won’t make it that simple, otherwise we may see Atlanta pre-switch and put Young in a spot where he won’t have to guard one of the wings. And we’ll also see the Celtics directly attack Young with White driving or Smart going at him off drives or direct on-ball actions.

Over the years, a pretty effective strategy Boston has used is Smart in post-ups against Young. He’s got enough size on Young that he can back him down for short shots, or force help to come. And, of course, if Young finds himself caught in rotation and on a big or a wing, the Celtics have had success finding that player too.

Murray is easily Atlanta’s best perimeter defender. There’s a good chance he’ll end up in a cross-match on Tatum or Brown quite a bit. That will put one of the Hawks wings (De’Andre Hunter, Saddiq Bey, Bogdan Bogdanovic) on White or Smart. That’s an immediate advantage for Boston. Both White and Smart will find success by driving those players for scores or to get the Hawks scrambling in rotation.

When Atlanta is on offense, Boston will probably guard this duo pretty straight up. Both Smart and White will see plenty of time on Young. In lineups when Young is working with Murray and playing off-ball, expect to see lots of switching, as the Celtics will live with whatever the result is, while trying to work back to White or Smart picking up Young to end the possession.

It may seem blasphemous, but Young might be the easier player to set coverages for. He doesn’t really surprise you very often. That’s not to say he’s an easy cover, because he isn’t. But Young isn’t mixing up his approach all that much. He’ll shoot deep pullups or he’ll drive for scores or lobs. It’s really, really important that Boston is ready to guard him as soon as he hits halfcourt.

Murray, on the other hand, is very herky-jerky. He doesn’t want to shoot from the outside very often, but he loves to get to a midrange pullup and he’s very slithery on his drives to the rim. Murray is comfortable taking on players for scores himself or setting up his teammates at the basket. The versatility of his offensive game makes him a little harder to plan for, because you don’t really know what’s coming.

Advantage: Even.

Despite how it might seem, this matchup is more even than you might think. White and Smart are the superior defensive players, and it’s by a pretty wide margin. Young is the best offensive player by a mile, and he piled up good counting stats against Boston this year. But he didn’t shoot it all that well.

The Celtics will run a lot of different looks at Young, just to keep him off-balance. But when it matters most, it’ll be Smart of White picking him up. If Atlanta wants to run things through Murray with Young spectating, that’s something the Celtics will happily live with.

If White and Smart are making shots, or setting up teammates, this matchup will be closer to a wash, even if the counting stats will favor the Hawks guards because of their volume and usage. If the Hawks are going to have any chance in this series, this is the matchup they need to dominate.

Starting Forwards

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown vs John Collins and De’Andre Hunter

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It’s often said the team with the best player in a series has an advantage. Well, the Celtics have the two best players in this series.

Jayson Tatum has had several big games against the Hawks over the years, while Jaylen Brown has dominated against his hometown team over the past few years. There’s no reason to think that won’t continue in this matchup.

John Collins is a pure four, so when Boston goes with one big, that puts Collins in a tough spot. Because the Hawks already have to hide Young to some extent, that puts Collins on an island. He’ll have to guard either Tatum or Brown and that’s a mismatch Boston will look to exploit. It’s not everyone’s favorite offensive approach, but this is a spot where quick isolations to get Tatum or Brown working in space against Collins are a good thing. Note: “quick isolations”. Not the ones where one guy holds it, while the defense loads to the ball for 20 seconds. Run something to get Tatum or Brown on the wide side of the floor and quickly clear out for them to get to work.

Hunter is probably better against bigger wings, as he’s a bit slow of foot against the quicker wings. Again, advantage Boston, albeit not as big as against Collins.

If Atlanta goes to Dejounte Murray on Tatum or Brown, that just leaves an attack point for Derrick White or Marcus Smart or Malcolm Brogdon. There really isn’t a good answer for the Hawks, as none of their small-ball options are very good defenders either.

When the Hawks have the ball, Boston needs to be solid and smart. You can’t just leave Collins and Hunter open at the arc, because they’ll beat you from out there if they find a rhythm. Mostly, you have to be prepared to help on drives by Young and Murray, but within a step or two of a good closeout.

Tatum and Brown also need to hit the glass in this series. Collins will pogo-stick his way into offensive rebound after offensive rebound if Boston doesn’t get a body on him. Occasionally, Tatum and Brown get a little runout happy on offense. That can’t happen or the Hawks will clean up on the offensive boards.

Advantage: Boston.

This is Boston’s single biggest advantage in the series. Atlanta doesn’t have a good answer for either Tatum or Brown. And you can’t take the approach of “let them get theirs and lock up everyone else” because the other Celtics are too good.

If Collins and Hunter can hang in here defensively to some extent, and if they can get on the offensive glass and hit their shots, they can lessen the margin a bit. But considering they’ve been shaky shooters this season, the first two parts seem unlikely to happen. And that’s a huge problem for the Hawks.

Starting Center

Al Horford vs Clint Capela

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Al Horford has had an outstanding season. He’s not only been the best shooting big in the NBA season, but he’s also been one of the best shooters in the NBA period. And while he’s no longer quite as good switching out to speedy guards as he once was, Horford remains a smart and very good defender overall.

Capela is basically Horford’s exact opposite. If he’s out by the arc, it’s because he’s setting or defending a screen. He’s shown signs of slipping, as he’s not quite as good as getting out and hedging on pick-and-roll ballhandlers as he once was. Simply put: Capela wants to be as close to the rim on both ends of the floor as possible.

And that’s how Boston will attack him on both ends. Whether it’s Horford pulling him out the arc with his shooting, or Rob Williams operating as an above-the-break facilitator or another Boston big doing a combo of Horford and Williams, Capela is going to have to work in space in this series.

On offense, Capela is a screen setter and rim runner. And he’ll feast on offensive rebounds if you let him. It’s absolutely imperative that Boston bumps and chips him on his rolls to the basket, and that they get a body on Capela when a shot goes up.

Advantage: Boston.

It’s hard to survive in the playoffs as a non-shooter. Defenses are too good and can gameplan you off the floor. Horford is the far better all-around player and Boston’s five-out style will put Capela in tough spots.

This might be one where you see the Hawks go to a quick sub and put Onyeka Okongwu in, and then bring Capela back to match minutes with Rob Williams. In that situation, Okongwu, who is more comfortable outside on both ends, can matchup with Horford. Then Capela can spend his time banging bodies with Williams in the paint.

Trae Young seems like the most obvious attack point for the Celtics in this series. And we aren’t going to suggest anything different. But Boston is going to attack Capela a lot too. If Horford makes shots, and nothing suggest he won’t, and the Celtics can control Capela on the boards, Boston wins this matchup handily.


Malcolm Brogdon, Rob Williams, Grant Williams, Sam Hauser vs Bogdan Bogdanovic, Onyeka Okongwu, Saddiq Bey, Jalen Johnson

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

Boston’s depth is better than the Hawks, almost man for man. The eight players above are the most likely to see meaningful action in this series. And if either team needs to go deeper into their bench, Boston’s advantage here only widens. We saw that in the regular season finale.

Much like the Celtics starting guards and wings, Malcolm Brogdon should find little resistance in getting to his spots in this series. Not to belabor the point too much, but Dejounte Murray can only guard one ballhandler at a time.

Rob Williams is looking like ROB again over the last couple of weeks. He’ll make a big impact on defense by closing down the paint and recovering out to shooters. And Williams’ vertical threat at the rim gives Boston an outlet they haven’t always had this year.

Grant Williams got over his midseason slump and has played really well in recent weeks. Because the Hawks forwards trend towards being bigger, he’ll see plenty of minutes as the Celtics third big in this series. And his shot-making is always a welcome sight.

Some seem to think Joe Mazzulla may cut the rotation to eight players, and he may, but there’s plenty of room for Sam Hauser to make an impact. Simply put: Boston will need his shooting on the floor at some point. And Hauser has held up well enough on defense that he’s not a flashing red light to attack for the Hawks.

Bogdan Bogdanovic is the Hawks version of Brogdon. He carries a lot of the scoring load when Trae Young sits. Boston can’t lose him, or Bogdanovic will make them pay with jumpers and cuts. But the Celtics perimeter defenders will make it hard for him to find shots. And Bogdanovic is going to find it hard on defense with the Celtics perimeter playmakers.

Onyeka Okongwu is rapidly developing into a really good player. He’s a rebounding menace and he’s a pretty good shot-blocker too. Because he’s more comfortable guarding at the level of the ball than Clint Capela is, Okongwu will probably play a lot against the Celtics screen-heavy offense.

Saddiq Bey is the classic trick-or-treat reserve. If he’s making shots, he can win a game for Atlanta. If he’s not, he won’t stop shooting until it’s far too late. He loves to get out in transition, so that’s something Boston will have to be wary of.

Johnson has split rotation minutes with A.J. Griffin and the two youngsters will probably both see some minutes. Johnson has played more lately, but the Hawks may not need a fourth or fifth forward very often. That could open minutes for Griffin, who has consistently made shots, to see some minutes.

Advantage: Boston.

We said it at the top of this section. The Celtics depth is just better than the Hawks. Joe Mazzulla knows who he can trust, and he also knows if he needs to go his 10-12, he’s going to be fine. Quin Snyder doesn’t have that same level of depth he can get to, even in his top-eight or nine guys.

Reserve-heavy portions of the game bridging the first and second quarters and the third and fourth quarters, are where Boston should be able to extend leads. They should win this matchup by a decent margin.


Joe Mazzulla vs Quin Snyder

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

Joe Mazzulla won the second-most games of any first-year Celtics coach, behind Bill Russell. That’s pretty good company.

Yes, we’ve all griped about Mazzulla’s lack of timeouts and some of his rotation decisions. But it’s important to remember that he was figuring everything out on the fly, in a job he never expected to have. And he’s improved greatly as the season has gone along.

Quin Snyder is still figuring things out with the Hawks team. You can tell he doesn’t really know what he has on a somewhat regular basis. Atlanta is still playing a mix of Nate McMillan’s stuff, while incorporating Snyder’s schemes. That’s a tough spot to be in as the playoffs start.

Advantage: Even.

If Snyder had been in Atlanta the whole year, he’d be a major advantage over Mazzulla. The experience, especially in the playoffs, would just be too much.

But Snyder has coached the Hawks for all of 22 games. He has more overall experience than Mazzulla, but Mazzulla has more experience with his team. That makes this an even matchup.


Celtics in four games.

The Boston Celtics are a far better team than the Atlanta Hawks. They showed that in sweeping the regular season series. And with both teams coming into the series at relatively full health, the gap between the teams is even wider than it was in the regular season.

If Atlanta is going to have a chance, they have to turn games into a track meet. The Hawks only hope is to win shootouts, because they aren’t going to hold the Celtics in check enough to hang in. One thing to note: Despite the presence of Trae Young, the Hawks don’t take a lot of three-pointers. Every guy they have that isn’t Young would rather get inside. Three-point variance will play a major factor in this series.

The Hawks will also have to crash the offensive glass with abandon. That may not work, because Boston is the best defensive rebounding team in the NBA. But it’s more of that all-offense approach that seems to be Atlanta’s only potential path to victory.

Trae Young may go off and win a game almost all by himself. Boston may have a game where they get super sloppy or one of those 8-for-40 nights from behind the arc. But the Celtics offense-defense combo is just too much for the Hawks to overcome and that’s why we’re thinking sweep.

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