The Boston Celtics’ point-of-attack defense had shined as a point of pride through the two games of their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks. Friday night, the Hawks flipped the script.
Atlanta pounded the rock inside to spark the scoring explosion in its 130-122 Game 3 win. The Hawks nearly doubled their shot volume at the rim, up to 29 attempts after managing just 16 in Game 2, and dominated on the boards. But a big key to their renewed life on offense was a sense of urgency to attack off the dribble — something they had done inconsistently all season.
According to tracking data from Second Spectrum, the Hawks drove the ball 61 times in Game 3, the most from a single team in a single contest this postseason, entering Saturday’s slate. That’s a major jump from Game 2, when they logged just 47 drives, and well above their regular season per-game average (47.7).
Trae Young and Dejounte Murray led the onslaught in the backcourt. Young’s sharp, downhill bursts contrasted with Murray’s methodical, probing dribbles. Young finished with a game-high 32 points and made 8 of his 14 shot attempts after a drive.
This was a tough defensive game for Al Horford. Young had Boston’s ball-screen coverage figured out. The Celtics like to run a drop coverage when a traditional center sets the screen, but when forwards like Jalen Johnson or John Collins acted as screeners, they were more inclined to have Horford switch. This led to a few challenging 1-on-1 situations with Horford guarding Atlanta’s superstar.
Horford did his best — Young’s clutch, step-back dagger came despite quality defense — but there were too many instances like the above and below possessions.
If that’s Robert Williams helping from the weak side, we might see a massive block. Grant Williams doesn’t have quite the same rim-protecting presence.
While Young laid down a much-needed Game 3 breakout, Murray has been a bright spot offensively for Atlanta throughout the series, and the 26-year-old again had his way off the dribble, going 7-for-10 on driving shots.
Murray’s herky-jerky changes of pace and his underrated strength with his frame allow him to pin guards behind him and control the space in front. He can get all the way to the rim but loves to freeze for mid-range pull-ups and floaters. Murray’s long arms and high release point make his shot incredibly difficult for defenders to contest.
Interestingly, the above bucket started with passes that initiated a Celtics switch, putting White onto Murray. Murray attacked White a couple of times on Friday with success, both in pick-and-roll and on iso plays, and it appears the Hawks would rather go at White than Marcus Smart.
Exhibit B to that point: Bogdan Bogdanovic logged a bounce-back effort and showed what can happen if other Atlanta players get in the driver’s seat.
Lot of strong, tough takes off the dribble from the Hawks last night. Bogdan Bogdanovic had a great game and just wins the battle against Derrick White here, forcing Williams to help and leave Collins open. The point of attack battles have been and will be huge in this series pic.twitter.com/pyHG1xZDk8— Ethan Fuller (@ethman43) April 22, 2023
When the Celtics’ offense hums, the drive-and-kick options are abundant, and the same is true for the Hawks. Bogdanovic plainly wins this hand battle, surges past White, recognizes John Collins open in the corner, and makes the correct next pass. It’s this type of pressure applied from complementary players that keeps a defense from settling into a groove.
Atlanta combined to make 64.5% of its driving field goal attempts in Game 3, an extremely high clip that was far above their 48.0% regular season mark.
So the Hawks have some mojo after a win. Boston should look to give Horford some help and keep him out of these isolated situations against Young. Horford is a quality defender and capable of making one-on-one stops; asking him to do it several times in a game against one of the league’s premier shifty scorers is too much.
There’s also room for the Celtics to improve resisting at the point of attack, and while it’s not fair to ask Derrick White of all people to simply “get more stops,” Friday was not his best defensive performance — and that’s okay.
Boston still funneled Atlanta into taking 32% of its shots from mid-range. That’s a zone the team should contentedly keep betting on. The Celtics also were a more efficient halfcourt offense, per Cleaning the Glass, despite losing on the overall scoreboard.
If Boston keeps its help rotations crisp and provide some more support against Atlanta’s lead guards, it can get back to the defense that has carried the team so much of the way.