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Atlanta Hawks-Boston Celtics playoff series preview

The Hawks enter as the 7th seed but is there any hope for them in this series?

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Good news: the Atlanta Hawks secured their place in the 2023 NBA Playoffs with a great victory against the Miami Heat on the road.

The bad news?

Their reward for beating the Miami Heat in the play-in is a first round series against the Boston Celtics.

The Celtics are one of the NBA’s best teams this season and have lost little in terms of their step after falling short in the NBA Finals in 2022, finishing the 2022/23 season with a 57-25 record, just a game adrift of the conference-topping, NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks.

There isn’t as recent of a story or history between the Hawks and Celtics like there was with the Miami Heat but similarly it’s a matchup the Hawks have not enjoyed of late.

The Celtics have won their last five regular season meetings extending back to last season — sweeping this season’s matchup 3-0 — and since the 2017-18 season the Hawks are 4-15 against the Celtics.

Everything points to chalking another four losses onto that recent record but let’s go through the numbers and look at how the two sides stack up against each other.

Off the bat, it’s a little harder than normal to read completely into the season numbers, given that the third of three games was the final game of the regular season where effectively no one played (other than De’Andre Hunter) so that game and its addition to the season-series stats is basically a complete write off, giving us just two games in the season series to really go off: one that took place in November (a 25 point loss at State Farm Arena) and one that took place in March (a nine point loss also at State Farm Arena).

So for that reason, the below stats are taking just those two games into account. Not to mention of course a coaching change during the season too. In short, the season-series numbers here are a mess in terms of taking into account how valid they are trying to see where the land lies, but here they are:

Hawks-Celtics season-series stats (two games)

Stats Hawks Celtics
Stats Hawks Celtics
PPG 113 130
FG% 45.8% 54.6
3PA 33 44
3PM 8.5 20.5
3P% 25.8% 46.6%
FTA 14.5 11
FT% 86.2% 86.4%
Rebs 46.5 44
ORebs 13.5 5.5
2nd chance pts 16.5 7.5
Assists 22.5 32
TOV's 9.5 12
Pts off TOV's 11.5 13.5
Fastbreak pts 14.5 18.5
Steals 4.5 5
Blocks 4.5 7
PITP 64 56

The biggest differential, the most alarming differential, are the three-point shooting numbers.

The Celtics were second in the NBA this season in threes per game, making 16 threes a game — the average against the Hawks is a little higher than their season average. Conversely, the Hawks shot a little worse in the season-series than their season numbers (10.8 makes) from beyond the arc.

Even the throwaway April game to end the season, the Celtics made 25 threes which is a giant concern for the Hawks and does follow the season-trend.

Still, a difference of 12 threes a game in this 2-game season-series...that’s a lot of points, 36 of them to be exact. That’s an enormous differential, and if the Hawks want to have any hope in this series they have to not only bring that number down but increase their own three-point shooting.

Immediately this is helped by the presence of Bogdan Bogdanovic, who did not play in either the November or March fixture but the Hawks need to decrease Boston’s threes more than they need to increase their own. We’ve seen the Hawks win games and not shoot the three well (including the Miami game) but when the Hawks concede 16 or more threes in a game this season they’re 1-13.

Simply put, if Atlanta doesn’t guard the three-point line it’s going to be very difficult for them to overcome that because they just can’t shoot with teams.

Let’s look at how the Celtics got their many threes.

The headache the Celtics will give the Hawks defensively leading to threes is that their screen-setting/off-ball screening created so many problems for the Hawks.

After a Hawks miss, the Celtics bring the ball up through Derrick White and the screen from Luke Kornet prevents John Collins from being able to close out Sam Hauser, who makes the catch-and-shoot three:

Again bringing the ball up the court, the Celtics get a quick three as White pulls up from three with the screen from Al Horford takes Clint Capela away and Trae Young doesn’t have the length to contest White’s three:

More so in the half-court this time, the double screen from Kornet and Grant Williams frees up Hauser for another three-pointer which Young can’t reach in time:

On the down screen from Kornet in the half-court and the Hawks aren’t able to contest Payton Pritchard’s three:

This time it’s Jayson Tatum who gets involved in the screening action before rolling to the corner and receiving the ball and he hits the three:

Next, indecision from the Hawks on how to cover the Celtics following screens leads to an opening for Pritchard for another three:

This next play was a nice bit of action between Tatum and Horford, initially a horns set before Tatum fades to the three-point line as Horford screens and Tatum hits the three:

The Hawks are going to have to be alert in these situations because if they find themselves trailing too far then it’s going to be difficult, especially if someone like Sam Hauser finds his shot:

Their communication around screens and urgency to close out will need to be better than this:

When the Hawks double the Celtics on screens or otherwise, it didn’t really work for them.

Here, Tatum sees an extra body and he just gets off the ball and the Celtics move the ball to move the Hawks defense and work themselves into a Horford corner three:

Because the Celtics have a lot of guys who can hit shots, it makes it tougher in spots to defend and it’s just a price you have to pay and hope the supporting cast misses, which was not the case here as Tatum moves the ball after seeing an extra defender:

Another area of large disparity between the two sides were the assists, and the Celtics move the ball well to work themselves into better three-point opportunities:

In addition, the Celtics have two very tough shotmakers in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, they just make some tough threes:

The Hawks were able to offset some of the differential from three by scoring a few more points in the paint and second chance points, and keeping their turnovers down really helps too, but there’s still a huge differential and the reason for that is Boston’s three-pointers. The Hawks will have to limit them.

Honestly, when you look at the Hawks’ numbers — other than the three-point numbers — they’re not bad numbers. They’re pretty solid all across the board. They just cannot stop the Celtics from thriving: 54.6% from the field is too much to allow defensively.

The same can be said from a player’s point of view looking at the stats from the series.

Trae Young averaged 31 points on 44% shooting to go with 11 assists per game in two games against Boston, Dejounte Murray averaged 16.5 points per game on 45.7% shooting from the field and De’Andre Hunter averaged 14 points per game on 47% shooting.

Those are solid numbers, and when you look down the roster and you can’t really pinpoint one player whose numbers were especially poor in this series.

Looking at the Celtics, Tatum’s production in this matchup was high this season: 26.5 points per game on 41% shooting, 11 rebounds, seven assists and was a total of plus-41 in the two games he played when he was on the court.

He had that one game where he shot 6-of-19 which brought down the percentage but that came in the game where the Celtics won by 25 points. In the March game, he scored 34 points on 12-of-25 shooting.

Regardless of his percentages, he’s obviously problem number one.

Obviously from three we’ve looked at somewhat already but Tatum is a problem near the rim where he is able to get with ease and finish:

The way Tatum is able to skip around the defense and finish at the rim is elite:

Tatum is likely to get his numbers regardless of what the Hawks throw at him. Jaylen Brown on the other hand could be a different situation and this will depend on the Hawks and how they defend Brown on the move.

Brown averaged 23 points in the season series on 57% shooting, and the majority of his work was done at the rim, be it in transition or in the half-court.

After a miss from the Hawks, Brown is able to cover ground quickly to steam into the Hawks’ half and finish at the rim:

On this possession, Brown lulls the defense and does a great job using his momentary backwards momentum before shifting gears and finishing with four Hawks nearby:

Brown’s first step and stride are strong, and the Hawks are going to have to do better to stay in front of him and rotate when the first line of defense breaks down:

When Brown gets to the rim he has the finesse required to beat defenders, or get them off their feet as he does with this fake here:

And this excellent underhand finish:

But even if the Hawks try and back off of Brown, he’s capable of hitting the mid-range jumper:

With varying degrees of difficulty:

Brown only shot 18% from three on 5.5 attempts, a far-cry from the 33.9% he shot from deep for the season so you would imagine there’s a good chance he’ll shoot better than that in the series but you’d also take the bet Brown won’t shoot as high as 57% from the field — though given the high efficiency of shots at the rim it wouldn’t be impossible.

Both Tatum and Brown are players who can work in isolation, but they’re also part of a great offense that can hit threes in half and open court, they can get to the rim, they can break you down with their ball-movement...they’re a top-tier offense (number two in the league) for a reason.

“Any time a team is unique that presents problems in of itself,” said Quin Snyder at the Hawks’ pre-playoff availability when asked what the Celtics do well. “They run, they can attack you in transition. Obviously the three-point shooting is a huge thing, something they do well and they’ve done particularly well against us. They play through possessions, you have to defend multiple actions within in the possession. You have to defend screening actions, you have to defend pick-and-roll, you have to defend isolation, you have to defend the three-point line. Any time a team has that many ways to score and you couple that with the weapons they have — particularly Jaylen and Jayson. Those guys are two of the top players in the league, and what makes them really unique is their versatility offensively and the different ways they score.”

Tatum and Brown accounted for a lot of the Celtics’ points but they had help in the season series. Nine players averaged double digits in this season-series.

Again, it’s all a bit murky when you look at the numbers but there’s also more room here for it to go negatively. The fear for the Hawks is that they haven’t even seen the Celtics at full strength this season, nor — perhaps more worryingly — at TD Garden in a real situation.

From a player-side of things, a number of the Celtics only featured in one game (again, not counting the near meaningless April game), with Malcolm Brogdon and Grant Williams both averaging 18 points, Payton Pritchard averaging 14 points. Marcus Smart also only appeared in one game and averaged 11 points while Robert Williams didn’t feature at all.

In the two games, Sam Hauser averaged 13.5 points (and was an issue from beyond the arc in both games, averaging 4.5 threes) and Derrick White averaged 17 points per game.

The Hawks lost both games at State Farm Arena and the Celtics were 32-9 at home this season while the Hawks were 17-24 on the road. If the Hawks could even steal one game on the road they’d be doing better than the general consensus expects.

On the Hawks’ side of things player-wise, they need Young to continue to excel as he did against the Celtics.

It was an odd breakdown for Young to average 31 points: in November he hit a lot of floaters en route to 27 points and in March Young hit a lot of jumpshots en route to 35 points, jumpshots that I wouldn’t be confident could be sustained all season long, such as this one:

To have any chance in this series, the Hawks need Young to replicate those numbers and will also need Dejounte Murray to increase his scoring output (averaging 16.7 points per game and shooting only 18% from three).

Murray himself is relishing the challenge of the Celtics.

“I love it,” said Murray of the matchup with the Celtics after the Hawks’ victory over Miami. “You got guys or people that say ‘you want to play this time, you don’t want to play this team.’ Obviously Boston’s at the top because they went to the Finals last year, but last year is last year. For me personally, I want the best ... obviously they’re one of the best and it’s going to be a great series.”

The Hawks will also need a strong series from their bench. The Celtics are a deep team and the Hawks’ bench — as good as they were in the Miami game — can be a very mixed bag at times. They will need Saddiq Bey and Bogdan Bogdanovic to be on it from three: this will not only address the Hawks’ need to succeed from three in this series but the bench production too.

A lot will also fall on Clint Capela, John Collins and Onyeka Okongwu in terms of anchoring the Hawks’ back-line and challenging shots at the rim (particularly from Tatum and Brown) once the perimeter defense falls out front like it inevitably will because a lot will be asked of De’Andre Hunter out on the perimeter and his task is truly unenviable given the threat of Brown and Tatum. Murray will also need to step up his one-on-one defensive game.

In short, there’s a lot that needs to go right for the Hawks to win this series: they need to hit threes, they need the Celtics to struggle from three, they need Tatum and/or Brown to struggle, they need the supporting cast to struggle, the Hawks’ bench needs to be great, they need Young and Murray to excel, the Hawks need their backline of Capela/Collins/Okongwu to be consistently there to clean up any mistakes out on the perimeter... etc, etc.

“It’s no mystery that we’ve got our work cut out for us,” said Snyder. “They’re that good of a team. We’re going to have to compete, communicate and execute and do those things at high level and we’re going to have to do that for a long time. Whether it’s through a possession, through a quarter, through a game, through a series. That’s what the playoffs are about.”

There won’t be many taking the Hawks in this series. As Snyder alluded to, there’s a reason why the Celtics are among the favorites in the Eastern Conference. There’s also a reason why the Hawks had to scrap to make into the playoffs, but I think the Hawks could certainly give the Celtics more of a fight than expected. It really depends on what version of the Hawks show up in this series. There is giant-killing potential, as the Hawks have shown at times this season. There’s also the version of the Hawks that could lose by 20 points easily.

For the playoff hopeful, the Hawks won their last playoff series against the Celtics in 2016 when they were certainly more favored in that spot too, and have taken down a number one seed in more recent years, which is something Trae Young pointed to as reference for his belief in his team.

“We have really good players and we can play at a high level,” said Young. “We’ve beaten a number one seed before since I’ve been here so I have confidence in my teammates, confidence in myself that we can go out and do anything, so I definitely believe.”

Win or lose, this will be good springboard for the Hawks for when they go through their first full season with Quin Snyder in 2023/24 — a point of reference for what it is Snyder will want to build with this group, for which he signed for the long-term.

The Atlanta Hawks again will travel down a tough post-season road: can they defy the odds once again?

We shall soon see...

DraftKings Series Odds

Boston Celtics -1000 to win series

Atlanta Hawks +650 to win series

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