I asked the staff to preview the upcoming series against the Atlanta Hawks by asking them for what they believed the key to the series was. I wanted to leave the subject vague enough for them to be creative in their responses and they came through as you will see below.
I feel like this series against Atlanta is going to come down to the battle of the bigs, and how Boston exploits them. Clint Capela was feasting on the boards against Miami, and while the Celtics center depth has improved significantly, I still want to see how the team tries to attack the glass against a guy like Capela. Outside of Robert Williams, all of Boston’s bigs are capable of stretching the floor, which will be crucial in softening up Atlanta’s interior defense and opening up the floor for guys like Brogdon, White, Smart, and the Jays to attack the basket. I think Al Horford will be a big part of Boston’s plans against ATL, and besides Boston’s three-headed monster of a guard rotation going up against Trae and Dejounte, the bigs matchup is one I’ll be keeping my eye on in this first round series.
While I think later playoff series will come down to the margins (X-factors, role players, bench production, matchups, coaching, etc.), this first round against an inferior team in the Hawks is one where I think Tatum and Brown can overwhelm them with star talent if they come out with a killer mentality. The Hawks have undersized guards and a lack of real wing stoppers with plus size. DeAndre Hunter is their best bet for a Tatum or Brown matchup and there is only one of him. Capela and Okongwu are solid interior defenders, but they don’t have the versatility of a Bam Adebayo or the sheer size of the Bucks front line to really deter Tatum and Brown from feasting at the rim. Tatum and Brown should be reading the scouting report, taking a look at each other, committing to averaging a combined 60+ points and 15+ free throw attempts per game, and putting the Hawks to sleep in 4 or 5.
Truthfully, there’s no world (barring injuries) in which we lose 4 games to the Hawks. So, the key to this series is actually just about preparing us as effectively as possible for the next round, likely against the Sixers. Against them (and any good team for that matter), ball movement and player movement are key. Boston is a different team when they are playing hot potato on offense as opposed to when they’re going to Tatum and Brown isolation ball, and what type of team we see against Atlanta will be indicative of the team that we’ll see in following rounds.
The key for the Celtics is for them to not play like they’re playing the Hawks. By the numbers, the Hawks were the definition of average this season. They stayed at .500 for the entire year and showed few signs of true playoff competitiveness. Their Eastern Conference Finals run was two years ago, and it looks like a complete flash in the pan. The only world in which the Celtics lose more than a game (if that) in this series is if they play down to their competition. You saw it against the Washington Wizards late in the season, you saw it when they blew three double-digit leads in a row, and you could see it in the playoffs if the Celtics go out there and play lazy basketball. If they avoid that trap, they’ll be just fine.
I think for the most part, Boston won’t switch as much as they normally do, so it’ll all come down to how the Celtics’ three-headed monster of Malcolm Brogdon, Marcus Smart, and Derrick White can chase the two-headed monster of Trae Young and Dejounte Murray around screens, contest in the mid-range, and most importantly, not foul.
However, what I’m really focusing on is who is Joe Mazzulla’s eighth man in the rotation. Because of Atlanta’s athleticism and size on the wings, my gut tells me that it’ll be Grant Williams as a third big/wing, but as well as Sam Hauser has shot the ball against the Hawks, I just don’t know how you keep him off the floor.
I agree with everything above. I think the key to this series – as simple as it sounds – is for the Celtics to not underestimate the Hawks. If they pretend they’re playing the Warriors or Bucks, everything will fall into place. Atlanta may steal a game, but I don’t see the series going longer than five. Boston has too much talent and balance on both ends.
Realistically, I don’t think the Hawks are going to be able to push this series further than six games at the absolute most. They’ve been the essence of mediocrity, hovering within a game of .500 for months, and they seem to be a mess behind the scenes amidst tension between Trae Young and the organization. It sounds reductive, but I think this is simply going to be a matter of the Celtics having a postseason mindset and taking Atlanta seriously as an opponent. Apart from 2021’s shorthanded loss to Brooklyn sans Jaylen Brown, the Celtics have consistently taken care of business in the first round of the playoffs in the Jayson Tatum era, including three sweeps. If they avoid an early letdown and any wild swings in shooting variance, there’s a strong chance they could earn a fourth this year.
What is the one thing the Celtics do that’s guaranteed to perturb the fans? We all know it’s when they “play down to the competition.” That’s a condition marked by lack of pace and ball movement, little to no defensive pressure, and thinking they can turn it on in the fourth quarter and win even without playing the right way. We’ve seen the results too often, such as allowing 150 points at OKC, being exposed by the lottery-bound Rockets and Wizards, and losing three of four to the well-under-.500 Magic.
The Celtics are one of the favorites to win the title in June. They were 3-0 versus Atlanta this season. No one expects the Hawks to win this series. ESPN’s panel, for example, picked the Cs unanimously (15-0) to advance. Only three of the experts said it would take as many as six games. So the key to the series is, how will the Celtics approach Game 1? Will they play down to the competition and put themselves in a hole? Or will they come out focused and ruthlessly dominate the lesser team, as a true contender should? In the playoff atmosphere, I believe it will be the latter…but I’ll feel better after I see it.
I think this series favors the Celtics in every position. However, I am really interested in seeing the battle between Dejounte Murray and Jaylen Brown, as I think that will be one of the best battles over the course of 4 or 5 games (yes, I’m calling sweep or gentlemans sweep.)
I will say, I’m also interested to see if Mazzulla uses smaller defenders on Clint Capela, in a bid to get underneath his hips and keep him out of the paint - thus limiting his offensive rebounding. I’m not sold that Capela can do to Boston what he did to the Heat - as they’ve had center issues all year in terms of quality backup behind Bam Adebayo.
Of course, finding ways to limit Trae, and uplift Jayson Tatum are both going to be high on the things I'm watching out for on Saturday