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The Hawks are better than people think, and that’s a good thing for the Celtics

They were never in danger of losing the series, but it’s more beneficial than winning every game by 30.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks
Marcus Smart dribbles as Trae Young defends in the first half of Game 4 on Sunday.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When the Celtics drew the Hawks in the first round, many people incorrectly assumed Boston would waltz to a stress-free sweep. I wasn’t one of them.

I thought the Celtics would win the series in five, and I still do, but I didn’t think it would be easy. For starters, the Celtics have played down to the level of their opponents the bulk of the season. Just because they should win a game handily, doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee.

Secondly, and more importantly, the Hawks are better than people think. The Celtics have at no point been in danger of losing this series, but they have had to earn it for the most part. That’s much more beneficial than cruising to 30-point wins every night.

This is the playoffs; it’s supposed to be hard. All the Celtics had to do was win one in Atlanta – which they did Sunday night, 129-121 – and the series was theirs. But make no mistake: this hasn’t been a cakewalk, and it’s prepared them well for what’s to come.

“Every time they went on a run, we responded,” Jayson Tatum told NBC Sports’ Abby Chin. “Guys made big-time plays, big-time shots.”

The Hawks are extremely talented offensively. Trae Young has an offensive skill set like few others. Dejounte Murray is a smooth operator. De’Andre Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanovic can flat out shoot it. John Collins, Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu are formidable threats down low.

Their record in the regular season may have been 41-41, but that doesn’t tell the full story. Atlanta is well above average offensively. There’s just one problem; the Hawks can’t really stop the Celtics – or anyone for that matter.

Boston has the firepower to trade buckets with Atlanta the bulk of the way, then put the Hawks away with a few timely defensive stops when it matters most. After a relatively harmless Game 1 and 2, the Hawks responded and turned in a great showing in Game 3.

The Celtics adjusted accordingly in Game 4, holding Atlanta to 43.9 percent shooting. The Hawks may have scored nearly as many points Sunday, but they had to work much harder to get those points.

Collins was a non-factor, the bench was quiet and Murray finished minus-16. The Celtics, meanwhile, shot 51.7 percent from the field and trusted the habits that have gotten them to this point. They never panicked when it got tight and consistently made the extra pass.

The Hawks quickly snatched momentum in Game 3, but the Celtics never let the damage escalate. Fans didn’t start to get that anxious feeling that the series was slipping away, even when Game 4 was up for grabs down the stretch.

The score was close, but it felt as though the Celtics had it the whole way. That’s the sign of a team that can be trusted.

Jayson Tatum went on a scoring spree. Jaylen Brown made excellent decisions in the paint. Robert Williams gave yet another reminder of how critical he is to this entire run. Marcus Smart and Derrick White did a little bit of everything. It was a total team win.

Remember in 2008 when the Celtics and Hawks traded blows in the first round before the Celtics obliterated them in Game 7? This series is different than that one, but it has some similarities.

Getting a talented team’s best in the opening round does nothing but help in the big picture. The 76ers weren’t tested much against the Nets, so when they face the Celtics, Boston will have a slight edge in that sense.

If this series ends up going six or seven, that’s a little too close for comfort. But if the Celtics take care of business in Tuesday night, it will have unfolded exactly the right way to bolster Boston’s long-term chances.

Moving forward, when the games get more competitive, and the situation more pressure-packed, the Celtics can lean on the experience they’ve gained in this series regarding how to close out a pesky opponent.

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