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The Road To Banner 18 Officially Kicks Off With The Atlanta Hawks

Kevin C. Cox. Getty Images.

One of the benefits of being a top 2 seed and not being in the Play In is you can just sit back and enjoy the show. Having experienced both scenarios, I have to say as a fan I very much enjoyed not having to watch my favorite basketball team play in the Play In. Even though watching Tatum drop 50 was awesome in his lone Play In appearance, it's much better to not even have to deal with it.

Both games last night were a perfect example of why that is. All it takes is one game. Whatever happened in the regular season no longer matters. Who the better team might be no longer matters. It's about what happens on the floor, it's about whether or not you can execute at a high enough level to earn your way into the real dance.

What doesn't matter is reputation. This could not be more true when talking Hawks/Heat. Nobody, and I mean nobody gave the Hawks a chance. 

Why? Because people get a hard on for Playoff Butler and the Heat this time of year. They were willing to ignore the 82 game sample we had of them just not being good. A 17-0 final tally? Good for the Hawks for taking that personally and shoving it right down the Heat's throat on their own floor.

So now we know. After being told for weeks about how the Celtics getting the 2 seed was a death sentence since it meant MIA in the first round, the path for the Celts is now set and MIA is nowhere to be found. 

Here's what I don't think anyone should do. Do not look ahead. Do not assume anything when it comes to this first round. That's how you get into trouble, and it's the very thing everyone hates when the Celtics do. Respect the opponent. 

That does not mean you shouldn't have confidence heading into this series against the Hawks. In the playoffs, the only thing that matters is matchups. This is no longer regular season or even Play In caliber basketball. This is the big boy stuff, where things slow down and weaknesses get exploited. I think it's safe to say that in terms of matchups, the Celts provide a ton of issues that the Hawks are going to have to try and figure out, and so far this season we haven't really seen them succeed with that.

Heading into this series, let's talk a little bit about how these two teams match up

The first thing the Hawks will be reminded of is this is not the Miami Heat on the offensive end of the floor. In the three meetings this season, the Celts put up 126, 134, and 120 points. Those first two games came on the Hawks floor and both times they had about 95% of their roster available. 

As a team, the Celts shot 52/46% with 22 3PM in their season series, winning all three games. This is where the matchup issues come into play. If you want to beat the Celtics, you have to be able to contain their wings. If you can't stop the Jays, nothing else really matters. They played in 2 of the 3 games this year, and here's how they did

Jayson Tatum: 26.5/11/7 on 40/33%

Jaylen Brown: 23/5/2.5 on 57/18%

as you can see, they didn't even shoot the three all that well and it still didn't matter. The issue here is the Hawks don't exactly have the wing defenders you need. De'Andre Hunter has good size on the wing, but after that? Bogan Bogdanovic, Jalen Johnson, John Collins, Saddiq Bey, those are not exactly what I would call plus defenders. As a team, the Hawks rank in the 27th percentile in defending isolation, and while I wouldn't say the Celts thrive in that playstyle, when things slow down in the playoffs and you need to get stops, I'll take the Jays against any of those wing defenders and not think twice about it.

Everything offensively for the Celts is connected. They thrive off drive and kick plays, and if the Hawks aren't going to be able to provide any resistance in the paint from the Jays/guards, they are going to be in a bit of trouble. The Hawks allow the 8th most opponent 3PM in the league and are 28th in opponents points. If the Jays are going to have the ball, we already know what Joe is going to do. He's going to target Trae Young/guard off screens and get his shooters wide open looks.

What makes the Celts a matchup nightmare for a team like the Hawks who has been in the bottom third defensively for over a month is the fact that they can throw up lineups where all 5 guys can create offense and hurt you one way or another. They can match the Hawks size which we saw last night be a huge reason why MIA struggled. If the Hawks want to go small, that's OK too considering the Celts have the bodies to match that as well. 

Aside from the wings and how that's an advantage, the guard matchup is also going to be a huge factor in this series. Trae Young is a fantastic offensive player who can kill you through shooting and playmaking. He deserves his respect in that regard. The issue is at this time of year, if you can't get stops at your position, it kind of undoes everything you do offensively. We've seen what the playoffs can mean for smaller guards who get targeted every single time on the floor. Despite all of his offensive talent, the Hawks got outscored by 14 points per 100 possessions with Young on the floor. 

This is not Kyle Lowry/Gabe Vincent. This is Marcus Smart/Derrick White/Malcolm Brogdon. Not only are they all solid defensively (Brogdon has been getting better), but they all have the size/speed to give Young hell on the defensive end as well. There's no let up for him. He goes from Smart, to White, to Brogdon. That's tough.

With Dejounte Murray, we've seen how he kills the Celts before. You have to limit his midrange/paint FGA. We all remember these performances right?

In 2 games this year on the Hawks, Murray put up 16.5/3.5/4.5 on 45/16%. If you look at his shot chart, you can see what I mean by limiting his FT line extended offense

We just saw last night that when Murray is feeling good, he has the ability to kill you off the dribble with his pullup/floater. Time after time he came through with that shot over Bam down the stretch, so the Celts defenders being able to stay home and limit those type of possessions is going to be key. Murray may have his flaws, but he's the type of guy that when he gets rolling he can put up big numbers. We've seen it.

If there's one thing last night showed me, it's that you can bait this team into hero ball. Trae, Murray, Collins, they all can't resist. I say give Murray all the 3PA he wants because he's going to bite and take them despite it being a bad shot for him.

The one area where I would say could be potentially worrisome is the offensive glass. The Hawks rank 11th in the league in OREB%, and I think it's fair to say that in minutes that Rob isn't on the floor, the Celts struggle at times. The good news is on the season, the Celtics rank #1 in terms of opponent OREB% (25.4%). Because the Hawks struggle so much in the shooting department, the work their bigs do on the offensive glass is a huge part of their offense. Just look at what Capela did last night

The Hawks are 9th in the NBA in 2nd chance points (Celts 22nd) and 7th in points in the paint. Conversely, the Hawks ended the year 29th in the league in opponents' points in the paint. Why do we think that is? Because their perimeter defense stinks. If the Celts stay aggressive and take care of the ball, they are going to get whatever they want whether it's kick outs for 3PA or simple lobs to Rob once the defense commits.

It's going to be crucial that the Celts prove they can be MUCH better at defending P&R ball handlers in this series after ranking in the 37th percentile in that during the year. Whether it's Murray or Young, you're going to get a lot of P&R facing this team. The Hawks were #1 in the NBA in P&R frequency this season. It's the biggest part of their offense, and I wouldn't say the Celts have been lockdown at defending that set. Maybe they were saving it for when it matters, well that time has arrived. 

On the other end, run this team off screens. The Hawks can't defend it. They finished in the 6th percentile defending off screen sets, and as you saw in those Hauser clips, that's the formula. It doesn't always have to be down screen for a shooter, it can be a pick and pop, it can be flare screens, the point is more to make the Hawks defense move and actually guard because the data says they can't do it at a high level. They finished 22nd in the league in halfcourt defense. Attack it.

If the Celts stay focused and make sure to respect their opponent, the basketball stuff suggests they'll do just fine in this series. That's always going to be the wild card with this team though. They cannot look ahead to the 2nd round and forget there are actual games to play before you get there. 

That's what the Heat did last night and look at how that worked out for them.