Before the series started, I noted that the crux of Hawks-Celtics would come down to how Boston’s defense would handle Trae Young, Dejounte Murray, and Atlanta’s offense:
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.
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.
Through two games and two blowouts, the Celtics have clearly won on the defensive side of the ball.
The Hawks are still finding some success with what got them into the playoffs: offensive rebounding and subsequently, generating more shot attempts. In Games 1 and 2, they’ve pulled down 33 boards on the offensive end and taken 25 more shots. The Celtics have mitigated some of that damage by allowing just three more second chance points (25-22) over both games at TD Garden and more importantly, forced Atlanta into some difficult shots.
As mentioned, head coach Quin Snyder isn’t blessed with a lot of shooting or rim threats, hence the need to crash the glass. In turn, the Celtics have contained Atlanta’s offense to outside of the restricted area and inside the arc. In Game 2, the Hawks shot nineteen more threes on Tuesday night with a bulk of them (16) coming from John Collins and De’Andre Hunter. Boston will gladly take that.
“Our focus is take the shots we get and the way that they’re shifted, if they’re open, we take them,” Snyder said after his team had half the number of shots they had in Game 1 in the restricted area and just eight free throws vs. 22 on Saturday. “I still feel like that when we turn them down and when we get into traffic, the result isn’t as good.”
Snyder is right.
Several times when Sam Hauser was on the floor, the Hawks, particularly Trae Young and Dejounte Murray, hunted him on defense. Hauser got caught a few times, but for the most part, held his ground.
Hauser will give Young enough space to shoot the pull-up jumper, but if Young is going to try and get to the rim, he’ll be met with help defense — here in the form of Jaylen Brown.
Boston isn’t exactly doing anything revolutionary. The Hawks know who they are and fortunately, so do the Celtics. In this modern NBA, the numbers just don’t favor long-2s, especially if they’re contested and Boston is making them take both.
Here’s Young again, probing after a pick-and-roll and drawing two defenders. Instead of dribbling out and resetting the possession, he gets swallowed up by Al Horford and Derrick White and force into a bad turnover with Marcus Smart lurking on the help side.
“In situations where teams shrink the floor, just being able to make a read,” Snyder said of the difficulty with dealing with the Celtics’ defense. “Sometimes, it’s a simple play, but it’s not that easy to recognize it. Boston is long and they shrink the floor. When we’re driving, we need to get off it at times.”
After the Hawks came into the playoffs as the hottest offensive team to close out the regular season, the Celtics have ramped up their efforts on defense. From January to March and April, Boston has tightened the screws monthly from an 112.1 defensive rating to 111.9 to 109.1. In the postseason, that’s dropped further to 100.5.
“We’ve been a group that’s hung their hat on defense all year. I think we started the transition from even when Brad Stevens was the head coach to Ime Udoka taking it up a notch and even now,” Brown said.
“We’re a defensive group, we play both sides of the ball, and we do it at a high level. Sometimes, it goes unnoticed. Sometimes, people depend on analytics to make their decisions, but when it comes down to it, in moments like this, this is when our defense matters the most in the playoffs. We’re looking to show what we can do on that side of the ball in these playoffs, me included.”
OK, JB. OK.