Heading into the second game in their first-round series, the Boston Celtics will be looking for the second straight win (and their fifth of the season) over the Atlanta Hawks. With control of the series on offer, it’s fair to expect Joe Mazzulla’s team to come out hot, and look to push the pace from the opening whistle, forcing Atlanta’s defense to bend and then eventually break under the pressure.
We saw a similar approach in game one, well, for the first half at least. And then, with a significant lead supporting them, Boston took their foot off the gas. As such, the Hawks will likely come into this contest with a belief that they can compete in this series, and they had found some form of blueprint — it’s the Celtics' job to snatch that hope and stamp it out for the whole world to see.
Of course, what we saw on Saturday afternoon won’t be what we see on Tuesday. The postseason thrives on adjustments, both in-game and on a night-to-night basis. With that being said, here are three things to watch in game two of the Celtics' first-round series.
Keeping Trae Young Subdued
In their first playoff encounter, the Celtics did a great job of limiting Trae Young’s impact. Boston picked him up high up the court and restricted his ability to penetrate off the dribble. Pinching on drives, hedging over screens, and keeping things fresh in terms of defenders, the Celtics kept the pressure on Young throughout the night.
The challenge now is finding new ways to limit his game. Quin Snyder and his coaching staff will likely have prepped Young on how to attack the higher defensive pick-ups, coached new ways to punish defenders on screening actions, and, quite frankly, banking on another poor shooting night might be a step too far.
Still, Young has to contend with a monstrous perimeter defense that boasts the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year, a 2023 All-Defense candidate, and a 2023 Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Figuring out how to score against that type of talent is far from easy, especially when Robert Williams and Al Horford are anchoring the paint.
Punishing Atlanta’s Defense
On Saturday, the Celtics were finding ways to get to the rim at will and converted 66.7% of their attempts. However, in reality, only 32% of their offense came within 4 feet of the basket. In the modern NBA, you can live with almost a third of your shots coming around the cup, but against a Hawks defense that is a constant green light to oncoming traffic, perhaps upping the rim volume slightly could pay dividends.
With 25% of Boston’s game-one offense being in the paint, but outside of the restricted area, it would appear that some minor adjustments could see the rim pressure turn up a notch and potentially give the Celtics some additional easy looks to flesh out a nice cushion as they did in their last outing.
Considering the number of talented slashers and on-ball penetrators Boston has on deck, and the defensive limitations across the Hawks roster, I would be inclined to say attacking the rim at a slightly higher clip is the lowest of hanging fruits.
Grant Williams or Sam Hauser?
It makes sense. Going small against the Hawks allows you to play faster. It allows you to stretch the floor, and create mismatches when running actions on the perimeter. However, Sam Hauser struggled to make an impact with his 11 minutes of playing time, outside of his reasonable defense, of course.
I get it. This feels like a series that doesn’t suit what Grant Williams brings to the floor. There’s minimal reason to be running double-big lineups for prolonged stretches, and Hauser’s off-ball movement and scoring gravity both play into the system Mazzulla wants to run. Yet, Williams is playoff tested — he knows how to succeed at this level and what it takes to excel within a team structure.
Furthermore, Williams has something to prove. After starting the season in impressive fashion, the upcoming restricted free agent drastically cooled off in the second half of the season, and right now, it feels like he needs some ‘rhythm games’ to get back to his best. After all, his number will surely be called when it’s time to guard Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris in the next round. Do you really want him coming into that series cold, shorn of confidence, and over-zealous to maintain his spot in the rotation?
Williams is at his best with a steady role in the rotation. Now, I’m not saying Hauser isn’t deserving of his current roster spot because he most certainly is, especially in a series against the Hawks, who he seems to cook more often than not. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see Williams’ name called at some point on Tuesday night. Then again, there would also be no shock factor if he registered another DNP.
I came into this series expecting a gentleman’s sweep. After Saturday’s game, I was tempted to change my prediction, but that feels premature. Ideally, the Celtics will handle their business in game two and at worst, split the trip down to Atlanta for games three and four. However, if we’re being honest, this series has sweep written all over it, unless Young goes supernova for a game or two.