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Getting the Playoffs off to a good start: 10 Takeaways from Celtics-Hawks Game 1

Boston’s defense was elite as they took an early lead in the first-round series

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics - Game One Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

1. The Boston Celtics 2023 NBA Playoffs run is off to a good start. Sure, the Atlanta Hawks made it semi-interesting in the second half, but Boston was never not in control after the midway point of the first quarter.

This was kind of a throwback back to the 2022 Celtics style of play. Boston’s defense was elite, as they held Atlanta under 39%. The Celtics guarded the arc extremely well, by staying attached to Trae Young and leaving lesser shooters open. When the Hawks got inside, the Celtics were there to challenge shots over and over again.

On offense, the best way to describe Boston’s approach is overpowering. The Hawks projected to have an advantage in the paint, but in Game 1, the Celtics matched them with 54 points in the paint. At no point was Boston settling for three-pointers. They took 33 triples, but most of them were off drive-and-kick plays where the defense was in rotation. Overall, a whopping 30 of Boston’s 33 three-point attempts were classified as open or wide-open.

That all came because Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum set a tone early that they were going to get to the rim whenever they wanted. As Atlanta adjusted, some of those drives turned into kickouts to shooters.

In many ways, Game 1 played out as expected. The Hawks simply don’t have the defensive talent to slow the Celtics down. And if Boston is going to defend like this, Atlanta won’t be able to score efficiently enough to make it much of a series.

2. Jaylen Brown had some issues with the cut on his right hand, and he said it opened back up during the game. That caused some ballhandling and passing miscues at times. But mostly, Brown played through it quite well. He got to his shots with little trouble.

This was a lightning-quick Eurostep here:

Atlanta got cross-matched in transition a lot in this game. On this one, Brown drew Onyeka Okongwu. Instead of forcing the drive, Brown used a dribble series to get to the nice step-back:

The patience from Marcus Smart here was terrific. He holds up the break to let Brown circle around him. And, as they have repeatedly done in the second half of the season, Smart found Brown cutting through the backdoor:

This is pure scoring craft. John Collins comes up with the nice strip, but Brown recovers the ball. He doesn’t rush into a second shot. Instead, he gets to his spot and works Collins for an up-and-under finish that would make Kevin McHale proud:

Once again, Brown drew a big here. This time it’s Clint Capela. We called out in the series preview that Capela isn’t quite as good guarding on the perimeter as he used to be. Brown sets him up nicely before drilling the jumper over him:

3. The Hawks don’t have good answers for guarding Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum. Dejounte Murray is their only good on-ball defender, as De’Andre Hunter has never quite developed as hoped for in that role.

In Game 1, Murray picked up Tatum a lot. Instead of playing with the ball, Tatum used his size advantage. Tatum is too big and too good on this one:

This bucket came on Hunter, but it’s the same sort of thing. It’s also a good example of how Boston will use their bigs as facilitators:

With a couple of guys lurking in the help spots, Tatum uses his size and lift to shoot over Murray here:

The spacing is a little messy here, but the process is great. Tatum and Derrick White run pick-and-roll to pick up the switch. Tatum goes right to the block. White doesn’t have the entry pass, but Rob Williams does. The result is easy money for Tatum in the post:

This is the final shot from Boston in the first half. It’s a good example of the stress the Celtics put on a not-good Hawks defense. There’s no reason for John Collins to step away from Jayson Tatum here, nor for Murray to drop with White after he screened. And the result was fairly predictable:

4. Derrick White is awesome. We could end it there with scarcely a murmured disagreement. But we’ll show you why anyway.

Trae Young dies on the screen. The big sticks with Rob Williams on the roll. White pulls up for the three:

Young dies on the screen. The big drops. White pulls up for the three:

This is the rare good recovery from the Hawks, but they let White drive the closeout and then lose Marcus Smart on the late cut:

The Hawks straight switch this screen action. White is overflowing with confidence by this point, so he pulls up off the dribble over John Collins:

No idea what Atlanta is doing here. Bogdan Bogdanovic seems to think he and Saddiq Bey have switched. Bey seem to think it was a hedge and recover. White doesn’t hesitate and punishes their confusion:

5. The Hawks have a pretty good size advantage inside. But the Celtics protected the rim with great success in Game 1. Boston tallied seven blocks and had a few other big plays around the basket too.

Derrick White got his nightly block at the rim out of the way very early:

Sometimes a block can be described as “erasing the shot” and that’s exactly what Rob Williams did here:

Marcus Smart read this whole play from Atlanta perfectly. And then he made the play at the rim to break up the lob:

And late in the fourth quarter, Marcus Smart made one of those signature Marcus Smart plays in transition:

6. Rob Williams looked as good in Game 1 as he has all season. He was a destructive force on defense. On offense, Williams gave Boston that vertical element that only he brings.

This is a called set from Joe Mazzulla. At the end, Jayson Tatum is like a quarterback. He throws the ball just knowing Williams will go up and get it:

Poor Jalen Johnson. He misses the shot to start this clip, then he’s the only one who got back. There’s no good choice here, but he steps to Jaylen Brown, who lobs to Rob:

Al Horford got Boston the second chance. Derrick White didn’t rush and then noticed Williams with only Trae Young near him at the rim:

Smart missed this first shot, but his hustle gave us a highlight lob to Rob:

7. Al Horford had one of the loudest six-point, nine-rebound games you’ll ever watch. He was a defender and rebounder first. And he was great in that role. But when the Hawks were still sort of hanging around, it was Horford who buried a needed three to keep them at bay:

8. It wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine for Boston. They let go of the rope big time in the second half of the game. After scoring 45 points in the second quarter, the Celtics only scored 38 points in the entire second half.

A big part of that was being sloppy with the ball on offense. Boston turned it over eight times in the second half, and that led to some easy transition buckets for Atlanta. Five of those giveaways came in the third quarter, when the Hawks found some life.

Now, on the plus side, even though the Celtics offense was messy in the second half, they locked in during the fourth quarter. They held the Hawks to just under 35% shooting in the fourth quarter. That’s the sort of elite defense that can win a title.

9. On its face, rebounding seemed like an issue for Boston. Atlanta grabbed 14 offensive rebounds. But there’s more context needed than just that number.

The Celtics were only a tick below their NBA-leading 78.5% defensive rebounding rate. A big part of the reason the Hawks got 14 offensive boards was that they missed 60 total shots in the game.

The other piece of context worth noting: Despite creating 14 second-chances, Atlanta only scored 12 second-chance points.

It wasn’t a perfect rebounding night for the Celtics, but most of the Hawks offensive boards came as a result of volume vs truly dominating the glass. And Boston cleaned things up on the second shot more often than not.

10. For a team that is still dealing with some bumps and bruises, and relies heavily on Al Horford, Boston will welcome the two days off before Game 2. They’ll get some rest and work on cleaning up some of the sloppiness that plagued them after building the massive lead.

Overall, the 2023 Playoffs are off to a great start for the Celtics. We’ll see on Tuesday if they can take a 2-0 series lead before heading to Atlanta.

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