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Celtics were all about pressure in Game 2

The Celtics were relentless in attacking the rim against the Hawks on Tuesday.

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

In 1990s England when the rave scene was at its most prominent, a punk-rave group emerged to take the country by storm. In one of their more famous tracks called Breathe, the lyrics to the opening two lines of the chorus go like this:

“Breathe the pressure.
Come play my game, I’ll test ya.”

As a quick aside, I’ve chosen this video because I was in the crowd, not because they’re playing the song in question (which they’re not).

What does this have to do with basketball? Well, when watching the Boston Celtics go to work against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 2 of their playoff battle on Tuesday night, I was reminded of those lyrics by The Prodigy as Boston forced their will onto Atlanta’s timid interior defense.

The numbers back up what the eye test was showing, too. The Celtics took 38% of their shots within four feet of the basket, converting 74.2% of them, per Cleaning The Glass. In a game where the Celtics dropped 118 points, 66 of them came from two-point range, with only Sam Hauser and Luke Kornet failing to register any buckets from inside the arc.

Celtics Players Total Points + 2 Points Totals

Name Points 2FG PTS
Name Points 2FG PTS
1. A. Horford 8 2
2. D. White 26 18
3. J. Brown 18 10
4. J. Tatum 29 14
5. M. Brogdon 13 6
6. M. Smart 14 8
7. R. Williams III 8 8
8. S. Hauser 3 0
Totals 119 66
Celtics Players Total Points + 2 Points Totals

For almost every Celtics player who touched the court, over 40% of their points total came inside of the perimeter and, largely, around the rim. The Celtics made Atlanta ‘breathe the pressure’ as they searched, in vain, for a way to stop Boston’s offensive Swiss Army knife from gliding through their defensive structure at will.

Of course, Boston found some easy buckets throughout the course of the game, with Robert Williams often being the primary beneficiary. Post-entry passes, lob passes, or drive-and-dump-offs were all used to give the Celtics' big man a steady diet of close-quarters buckets when he was on the floor. In fact, the Celtics were finding so much success by having a man on the dunker spot that at times, they even positioned Derrick White there for a possession or two, with some legitimate success.

In a contest where the Celtics drove the rock 41 times, generating 33 points, it was evident Joe Mazzulla had pinpointed an area to attack and players to exploit. Of course, whenever you’re tasked with playing the Hawks, Trae Young is always going to be a link you target, in large part due to his disinterest and physical limitations on that side of the court.

As such, it should come as no surprise that Boston ensured all of their players had a moment with Young guarding them, with the team as a whole putting 20 points on the board from possessions where the Hawks star was tasked with either being the primary defender or having been switched onto the scorer courtesy of a defensive switch.

Take this possession as a prime example of hunting Young without allowing your offense to lose rhythm or pace. A simple side pick-and-roll between Al Horford gets Jayson Tatum switched onto Clint Capela. Marcus Smart, who is being guarded by Young away from the action, jumps into screening position to force another switch and ensure Tatum gets the path of least resistance when going toward the hoop which meant Young had to step up and attempt to guard him.

While Boston did their fair share of mismatch hunting throughout the contest, they also looked to attack the defense straight up because, let’s face it, Atlanta’s wing defense isn’t built to withstand a barrage of penetration, and outside of Dejounte Murray, their perimeter defense is porous at best. Yet, there is another reason why Atlanta’s defense allowed so many attempts at the rim: poor communication.

We’ve seen far better teams than Atlanta get smoked by the Marcus Smart / Jaylen Brown back-cut play; however, that usually happens on the wing, not at the top of the break where a defense has time to pinch in to kill the cut. However, on the above possession, there is no secondary defense on offer. Rather, an overfocus on Smart, while Brown, an All-Star scoring machine, is left free to roam and eventually cut before having the red carpet rolled out for him to finish the possession in emphatic fashion.

Still, the above possession does provide a good indicator of one thing, and that’s just how much Boston’s offensive threats ensure there’s spacing around the entire perimeter. Because when defenders are afraid to help off, driving lanes open up in an instant; lanes that don’t necessarily require screens to become a viable scoring option.

We saw the benefit of that spacing in one of the earlier buckets of the contest, as a cut to the perimeter dragged Capela out of the paint, allowing Tatum to put the rock on the floor and drive the lane for an easy layup and quick two points.

For a team that has predicated its offensive identity on being a force from deep, seeing the Celtics shift their focus to take advantage of the Hawks’ limitations in defending the rim is an encouraging sign. After all, the postseason is about adjustments, not just making them, but forcing your opponent into reacting, both during the game and in the subsequent matchups that follow.

As things stand, it’s hard to see where Atlanta’s big change is going to come from. But for the Celtics, showing a diverse and effective offensive game plan will stand them in good stead moving forwards while ensuring they’re that much harder to beat when the threes inevitably don’t fall for a game or two.

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