The Eastern Conference’s second-seeded Boston Celtics and seventh-seeded Atlanta Hawks meet in the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs. Boston won the teams’ last first-round playoff meeting in 2016.
More Yahoo Sports NBA first-round playoff previews:
(3) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (6) Brooklyn Nets
(4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (5) New York Knicks
(3) Sacramento Kings vs. (6) Golden State Warriors
(4) Phoenix Suns vs. (5) Los Angeles Clippers
How they got here
Boston Celtics (57-25)
Just before training camp opened, the Celtics suspended head coach Ime Udoka for an improper relationship within the organization and replaced him with 34-year-old assistant Joe Mazzulla. Udoka’s hard-nosed approach sparked a remarkable turnaround last season, his first at the helm. He commanded the respect of his players, especially the stars, and they delivered Boston’s first Finals bid since 2010.
The shocking news threatened to prevent their championship vengeance from occupying front of mind, but the Celtics rallied around Mazzulla, starting 21-5 and reminding the East it runs through Boston. Jayson Tatum was the league’s early MVP favorite, and Jaylen Brown was not far behind. Around them were a bevy of 3-point marksmen, including Malcolm Brogdon, Grant Williams, Al Horford, Sam Hauser and Derrick White, all shooting well over 40% from 3-point range, and the offense was operating at a historic pace.
The scoring masked slippage on defense, but Boston expected All-Defensive center Robert Williams III to return from injury before Christmas, and a juggernaut loomed. Then came a Finals rematch with the Golden State Warriors in the midst of a six-game road trip, and a double-digit loss awoke the demons that cost the Celtics a title. Tatum wilted. Brown could not keep his handle. No one could hit the broad side of a barn.
Boston lost five of its next six games, course corrected in a statement win against the Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas and spent the rest of the season toggling between answering questions and raising them. Does Mazzulla convey enough urgency in and between games? Can Tatum sustain his brilliance? How invested is Brown? Is Marcus Smart‘s style taking a physical toll? Can Rob Williams stay healthy for any stretch?
The end result was 57 wins, more than any other Celtics team since 2009, the NBA’s second-best rating on both ends of the floor, the league’s top margin of victory (6.7 points per 100 possessions) and a 5-2 record against the two most serious threats to their Eastern Conference throne, the Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers.
Atlanta Hawks (41-41)
The Hawks, as ever, are perfectly average. They spent 37 straight games this season within one game of .500, settled at 41-41 and submitted a 0.1 net rating. They have a top-10 offense and a bottom-10 defense.
Two years removed from reaching the conference finals, Atlanta’s response to last season’s first-round exit was to trade the rights to four first-round draft picks in order to pair defensive-minded 2022 All-Star point guard Dejounte Murray with notoriously high-usage 2022 All-NBA point guard Trae Young in the backcourt.
Whether or not you endorsed the deal, need not worry: The Hawks went about their usual dysfunction. By December, tensions between Young and his head coach, which included an unexcused absence, led Nate McMillan to consider resigning his post, The Athletic reported. General manager Travis Schlenk did resign, leaving the job to Landry Fields amid reports that the team owner’s 27-year-old son was pulling the strings.
All the while, the Hawks continued surveying the trade market for John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanović to no avail. Dealing Kevin Huerter over the summer did their shooting efficiency no favors and failed to uncork a bottleneck of frontcourt players who either just got paid or will be soon. De’Andre Hunter could supplant Collins at the four. Onyeka Okongwu is the center in waiting behind Clint Capela. The acquisition of Saddiq Bey seemed to signal the end for Bogdanović in Atlanta, only the Hawks handed him a four-year extension.
They ultimately fired McMillan over the All-Star break in favor of former Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, and he could make no more sense of the roster in short order — until Tuesday’s play-in game. Amid reports that Atlanta’s front office had a “green light” to trade Young over the summer, the team laid waste to the Heat, snapping a seven-game losing streak in Miami. Young and Murray totaled 43 points and 13 assists. Capela and Okongwu combined for 25 rebounds and 6 blocks. Five more Hawks scored in double figures.
It was enough to make you wonder if Snyder could mold all that talent into one unit in time to make noise again in the playoffs. Then, you remember how they blotted out every other bright spot throughout the season.
Head to head
Boston swept its regular season series with Atlanta, 3-0.
The undermanned Celtics waxed the Hawks in their first two meetings, and then handed them another defeat in the regular season finale when most anyone of importance rested. Boston shot a combined 41-of-88 from distance (46.6%) in victories on Nov. 16 and March 11, both without Robert Williams. Neither Smart nor Brogdon played in the first meeting, either, and still a 25-point victory revealed the difference between the two teams: The Celtics are constructed around two massive wings, and the Hawks are built behind two wiry guards. A basic tenet of basketball is that it’s a whole lot easier to get stops with size on your side.
Boston’s most commonly used starting lineup — Smart, White, Brown, Tatum and Horford — has closed plenty of games, too, and outscored opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions on the season. Sixth Man of the Year candidate Brogdon is a luxury that can spell Smart or White if either is struggling. White has performed the best of Boston’s guards all season, and he should get the one slot beside Tatum and Brown if the Celtics revert to the monstrous lineup that made them a defensive menace last season. Swap Robert Williams in for Smart, next to Horford, and that five-man outfit is an astonishing +64 in 69 minutes.
Atlanta has options as well. The Hawks closed Tuesday’s play-in win with Young, Murray, Bey, Collins and Capela — a lineup that had previously been outscored by 24 points in 134 minutes in the regular season. Then again, their four most commonly used fourth-quarter lineups have all been dramatically outplayed in fourth quarters, so Snyder is still searching for his best closing group. Young and Murray are the only locks. Bogdanović, Hunter and/or Okongwu could respectively replace Bey, Collins and/or Capela based on feel.
Matchup to watch
The Hawks acquired Murray to ease the offensive burden on Young, and still the 6-foot-1, 164-pound two-time All-Star finished top 10 in usage rate this season with the worst effective field-goal percentage (48.5%) of anyone who attempts at least 19 shots per game. He is the head of their snake, for better or worse, and no team has more defensive weapons to cut him off than Boston. There is Smart, and White, and Brogdon, and Brown, and Tatum, all of whom can also target Young with the ball in their hands on the offensive end.
Young averaged an admirable 31-4-11 on 44/33/92 shooting splits in his two games against the Celtics this season, a marked improvement from last year’s 25-4-8 on 38/24/96 splits. He acquitted himself quite well in limited minutes against his two most likely defenders, totaling 26 points on 17 shots and 11 assists against a single turnover in less than a quarter’s time opposite White and Smart, according to the NBA’s tracking data. That did not give the Hawks a puncher’s chance in either meeting, but it is their only hope.
The bigger problem is what to do with Young on defense. There is nowhere to hide. He spent the bulk of his time against Boston this season defending White, who worked him for 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the matchup. The Celtics scored 126.7 points per 100 possessions with Young on the court this season — too much for the most potent of offenses to overcome — and it will not get easier for him in a playoff series.
The Celtics will game plan to hunt Young’s defense and hone in on his offense, over and over again. How much he trusts his teammates and how well his playmaking can support them will dictate whether or not this series ever gets interesting — and maybe even whether or not this is the last we see of him in Atlanta.
Boston Celtics (-1000)
Atlanta Hawks (+650)
Series schedule (all times Eastern)
Game 1: Atlanta at Boston on Saturday (3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Game 2: Atlanta at Boston on Tuesday (7 p.m., NBA TV)
Game 3: Boston at Atlanta on Friday, April 21 (7 p.m., ESPN)
Game 4: Boston at Atlanta on Sunday, April 23 (7 p.m., TNT)
*Game 5: Atlanta at Boston on Tuesday, April 25 (TBD)
*Game 6: Boston at Atlanta on Thursday, April 27 (TBD)
*Game 7: Atlanta at Boston on Saturday, April 29 (TBD)
Celtics in five.