After an 82-game season that flew by way too quickly, the Boston Celtics are about to enter the playoffs in search of that elusive 18th championship. The first roadblock will be the Atlanta Hawks, who shocked the basketball world by defeating the Miami Heat in the seventh vs. eighth-seeded play-in game to secure a series against the defending Eastern Conference champions.
No matter how I view it, I can’t see where Atlanta has an advantage. There are no elite wing stoppers, a defensive turnstile of a star guard, and a rim-running big that is on the wrong side of his career curve. Yet, the basketball gods have a way of humbling you, and just because things look a certain way on paper doesn’t mean that’s how they’re actually going to play out.
The Celtics will need to execute on every possession, lock up on defense, and treat the Hawks like they’re serious contenders if they want to wrap up this series in rapid fashion to afford themselves some rest for the sterner tests that await. Atlanta isn’t going to roll over willingly, and with that being said, here are three things to look out for in tonight’s game.
Jaylen Brown’s Hand
We’ve all been there. Drop something, clean it up, and accidentally hurt ourselves in the process. Heck, just a few months ago, I fell down a flight of stairs while carrying my daughter’s food tech ingredients which she had conveniently forgotten to take out of her school bag. Needless to say, the ingredients went flying, and I felt like a fool — but my leg was jacked up for a good few weeks. It happens.
So, as Saturday’s game gets underway, it will be worth paying close attention to how often Jaylen Brown favors his left hand and whether it’s at a detriment to him getting where he needs to go or operating at pace. Wanting to be on the court no matter what is commendable; however, if it looks like Brown is playing with a certain amount of physical limitations, then maybe a minutes restriction or bench role could be the answer.
Of course, if Brown comes out of the gates hot, hits his shots, and pressures the rim, we can all forget about our concerns regarding his hand and begin to cheer on one of the best two-way wings in the NBA as he continues to show the world what his prime is going to look like.
Joe Mazzulla vs. Quin Snyder
It’s true. Quin Snyder has far more postseason experience than Joe Mazzulla. Yet, as CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith reminded me recently, Snyder has been with the Hawks for approximately 25 games, which likely creates a level playing field in the coaching battle.
Game 1 of a series is usually a feeling-out process. Both teams will start showing their hands in schemes and matchups, while each coach will pay close attention to substitute patterns and how players fare against different defensive looks. Data analysis needs data points after all.
Coaching battles take on greater importance once the playoffs arrive, and it will be interesting to see how Mazzulla looks to manage the game in that type of pressure cooker. While Snyder will be throwing things at the wall, Mazzulla will likely roll out some sets he’s been keeping back as he waits for the Celtics to cross the regular season finish line.
Limiting Clint Capela
If you watched the Hawks decimate the Heat on the glass, you’re likely coming into Saturday’s game concerned about how the Celtics are going to contain Capela and control their defensive glass. Personally, I believe the way the Celtics have been defending rim-runners this season will work perfectly.
Throwing some smaller players onto Capela, asking them to pick him up around the high or mid-post, and getting underneath his hips to limit his mobility, should ensure Capela struggles to create a dominant position around the hoop. If he tries to jump over the small player, it’s an over-the-back foul; tries to outmuscle them, off-ball contact foul. By using guards and smaller wings to guard Capela, the Celtics will be freeing up their big(s) to continue protecting the paint or switching onto shooters on the perimeter while also trying to frustrate a genuine rebounding threat.
Don’t get me wrong, though; I would love to see some stretches where Capela and Robert Williams go toe-to-toe just to see what that looks like within the flow of the offense and how both of them look to counteract each other's skillset.
It’s hard to tell where the key battles are going to be heading into the first game of a series against a team you didn’t expect to see. Factor in the Snyder factor and Young’s ability to go supernova for a game or two, and there is certainly enough meat on the bone to have you chewing at your thoughts for hours on end.
Regardless, the Celtics enter this series with the two best players, a deeper roster, and everyone pulling in the same direction, which should be more than enough to steer them through the pitfalls that come with an opening game.