clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Styles make fights: Celtics championship-caliber defense will be tested by Hawks

Boston will have to contend with the hottest offensive team in the league.

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

A team can get lucky in one game. Hit a lot of contested shots or catch a team on the back end of a back-to-back and/or nursing injuries and you can run away with a win. However, a seven-game series in the NBA Playoffs is a prize fight. You might win a round here and there, but usually, it’s the totality of all the punches that will eventually determine the winner.

Atlanta’s 11-11 record under Quin Snyder doesn’t exactly exude a ton of confidence heading into the postseason and even beating Miami in Miami in the play-in tournament might say more about the Heat than it does about the Hawks. However, you can start to see Snyder’s influence on the offense. Consider this: by the time Snyder had transitioned Utah from Gordon Hayward to Donovan Mitchell, he transformed a middling Jazz offense into the most efficient in the league last season and he’s already made improvements with his new team despite starting so late in the year.

In the final fifteen games of the regular season, the Snyder-cut Hawks averaged the most points in the league at 124.1 a night. Sure, they played with pace to generate more possessions, but it’s not as if they were chucking up a bunch of three-pointers and getting out in transition. Instead, Atlanta excelled in the dirty work, the dirty work of fighting for offensive rebounds and the “dirty” work of getting to the free throw line. Against the Heat on Tuesday night, they grabbed 22 offensive rebounds to Miami’s 6 and went to the free throw line 27 times vs. the home team’s 20.

As impressive as Atlanta was on offense to close out the regular season, Boston matched them on the other side of the ball. Even while treating the final three games as a bit of a cool down from an 82-game marathon, the Celtics finished first in defensive rating at 109.1 points per 100 possessions; to put that into context, the Hawks were 25th at 118.5. It wasn’t exactly the stingy D that they closed with in 2022, but if defense wins championships, they’re clearly trending in the right direction.

Pun intended, so much of the Hawks’ point generation comes from their one-two punch of Trae Young and Dejounte Murray. To wit, they average just over 16 of Atlanta’s 25 assists per game. Nobody else averages more than three; the Celtics have four players not named Jay dishing out between 3 and 6.3 a night. They are the engines.

The Hawks are not exactly a “pass up a good shot for a great shot” team. They averaged the sixth highest pace in the NBA and the fewest passes per game. That almost seems impossible to do.

Atlanta in a nutshell. They’ll use Young as the catalyst coming off a pick or attacking in semi-transition. If he or Murray get into the lane, they’ll shoot either a mid-range or floater. They’re third in the league in mid-range shots (14.7 per game). If the defense collapses and they can generate an open three-point shot, they hit just 34.7% of their catch-and-shoot threes (27th in the league) which puts a premium on the offensive rebounding of Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu.

To win four games, the Celtics will counter punch with arguably the best defensive three-guard lineup in the league with Malcolm Brogdon, the defending Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Derrick White. Even though Boston’s system is predicated on switching, expect to see them play in drop coverage and go over screens against Young and under with Murray and keep their defensive shape.

Outside of Young and Murray, Snyder doesn’t have a lot in the way of on-the-ball creators. They don’t run a lot of actions off the ball because they don’t have a lot of movement shooters besides Bogdan Bogdanovich. If the Celtics can stay mostly at home and avoid giving open runways to high flyers like John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, and Jalen Johnson, they’ll neutralize their athleticism and turn them into shooters (which they’re not great at) and weak side isolation threats (also, not great at).

One of the big question marks heading into Round 1 is who will round out the rotation for the Celtics. Presumably, they’ll start their core four plus either Derrick White or Robert Williams — it’s most likely going to be White — and then Sixth Man of the Year candidate Malcolm Brogdon will come off the bench. That’s their top-7.

If Mazzulla leans into a more defensive identity, the 8th man will be Grant Williams. With how much the Hawks pound the offensive glass, it might be wise to utilize one of Boston’s most versatile defenders. With how much Atlanta is going to want to get the ball up and down the court, a third big could be in order. We might even be graced with a Blake Griffin cameo who was one of three Celtics (including White and Hauser) to play in all three games vs. Atlanta.

But with how well Sam Hauser shot the ball against Atlanta, it'll be hard to keep him off the floor. In three games against the Hawks, he shot a blistering 17-of-25 from behind the arc and averaged nearly 18 points a game. Part of that is strange coincidence. Part of that is the Hawks’ poor defense. However, if the games start to turn into shootouts — the Celtics averaged 127 points against them in the regular season — Hauser’s your Huckleberry.

There’s the obvious drawback though. It’s almost comical how much Murray and Young targeted Hauser on defense. In the nineteen possessions that they stared him down with the ball in their hands, they scored nineteen points on 6-of-9 shooting and dished out two assists. Just as the Celtics will pick on Young on their offensive side of the floor, you can bet that Hauser will get his fair share of ISO’s, too.

DraftKings odds

On Saturday afternoon, Boston open as 9-point favorites for Game 1 at TD Garden. That’s the biggest opening line for any first-round series with Bulls-Heat and Thunder-Timberwolves undecided so far. The Celtics are a -1000 to win the series.

Our friends at DraftKings also have the Hawks-Celtics over/under as the second highest total for any of the opening games. Out west, they’ve pegged Warriors-Kings at 238.5. In the regular season, Boston and Atlanta combined for 227, 259, and 234 points. Game 1’s over/under checks in at 230.5.

Check out DraftKings Sportsbook, the official sportsbook partner of SB Nation.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Celtics Blog Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Boston Celtics news from Celtics Blog