The eyes of the NBA world will be on TD Garden on Saturday afternoon with the start of a seven-game series between the Atlanta Hawks and the Boston Celtics. Atlanta earned the No. 7 seed with an upset win over the Miami Heat on Tuesday, leading virtually wire-to-wire and reminding of the previously unfilled promise from an otherwise disappointing regular season. Boston zoomed to the No. 2 seed with the second-best record in the NBA, winning 57 games in the process, and the Celtics have the hammer of home-court advantage and the edge in rest as a reward.
Without further delay, let’s glance at an interesting series.
Keys for the Hawks
Broadly speaking, it will be interesting to see if the Hawks can replicate their effort from the victory over Miami. On one hand, Atlanta was the epitome of an average team this season, famously hanging around the .500 mark for months on end and finishing with a 41-41 record. On the other, the Hawks are clearly more talented than a typical No. 7 seed, much less a 41-win team, and that is doubly the case with Atlanta entering the playoffs at full health and with improved depth after the deadline acquisition of Saddiq Bey.
Atlanta projects to struggle defensively in this series, both due to the team’s own issues and Boston’s highly explosive and efficient offense. However, the Hawks do have a path to offensive success. Atlanta posted a top-three offensive rating after the All-Star break, including a top-tier mark on the offensive glass in securing more than 30 percent of missed shots on the offensive glass. The biggest key to Atlanta’s win over Miami was also domination on the offensive boards, with 22 offensive rebounds and 26 second-chance points.
Against a Boston team that led the league in defensive rebound rate during the regular season, the Hawks probably won’t be able to totally control the interior, but second-chance opportunities could swing things in Atlanta’s direction, particularly if Boston leans into smaller, offense-leaning lineups. From there, the Hawks have upped their free throw volume and three-point volume, at least modestly, under Snyder, which improves Atlanta’s upside in a series.
Keys for the Celtics
In addition to Boston needing to secure the defensive glass, containing Trae Young and a very prolific Atlanta offense will be paramount. Fortunately for the Celtics, this is a roster well-constructed to do just that. Boston is one of the league’s best switching teams, with a bevy of quality options to throw at Young, Dejounte Murray, and the rest of Atlanta’s perimeter options. From there, the Celtics deploy virtually no defensive weaknesses (unless they choose to dig deeper into the rotation with Sam Hauser, etc.), and Atlanta has sometimes struggled against more versatile defenses that don’t lean heavily into drop coverage.
On offense, Boston was able to do almost anything it wanted against Atlanta in the regular season. Though the Celtics and Hawks played a meaningless game in the regular season finale, Boston throttled Atlanta in the first two games, largely behind the three-point arc. The Celtics made 20 three-pointers or more in each contest and completely put the Hawks into the blender. That wasn’t an outlier either, as the Celtics ranked near the top of the league in offensive rating (117.3), three-pointers (16.0 per game), two-point shooting (56.7 percent), three-point shooting (37.7 percent), and free throw shooting (81.2 percent) with strong ball security and the ability and willingness to share the ball with unselfishness.
Atlanta is in a more stout position at this point after the hire of Quin Snyder and the aforementioned uptick in depth, but the Hawks do land firmly in the bottom third of the league in defensive rating, even after Snyder’s arrival. If the Celtics can keep the offense humming at close the rate they performed at in the regular season, the Hawks figure to be in trouble.
Who is the best player in this series? Jayson Tatum is the clear answer through the lens of the 2022-23 season, and it would be easy to argue that Boston’s No. 2 option, Jaylen Brown, has played better than Atlanta’s No. 1 option in Trae Young. That is a not insignificant part of why Boston is seen as a massive betting favorite in the series but, if the Hawks want to make this interesting, Young needs to be spectacular. After a very strong in the 2021 playoffs, Young floundered in 2022 against Miami and the Celtics will likely look to employ similar levels of defensive pressure to see if that still can take him out of his game. While the Hawks won’t be drawing dead without Young averaging 35 points per game, he does need to set the table for everyone else, put consistent pressure on the Boston defense, and see an uptick in his scoring efficiency for the Hawks to have a real chance in this series.
Boston also has more health questions than Atlanta does at this moment. Jaylen Brown has a laceration on his shooting hand and Marcus Smart is coming back from a late-season neck issue. Both are expected to play but, with the Celtics entering Game 1 after almost a full week off, the Hawks likely need to pounce early on to throw things into chaos. The Hawks need to play above their usual baseline to challenge the Celtics, but Atlanta has shown signs of that capability and, in general, the Hawks bring the talent, versatility, star power, health, and coaching acumen that can put up a real fight. The issue all season for the Hawks was putting that all together for an extended stretch, and the Celtics will require them to raise their level consistently across the seven-game series in a way they haven’t all season.