The Boston Celtics are set to kick off their 2023 postseason campaign on Saturday afternoon at 3:30 PM EST, and they finally know who their opponent is. With the Atlanta Hawks upsetting the Miami Heat 116-105 in their Play-In Tournament matchup on Tuesday night, the Celtics learned that they will be taking on the Hawks in their first playoff series of the postseason.
For the most part, the Heat were heavy favorites to win this game, and it was clear that they had revenge on their mind after losing to Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. However, it appears as if they overlooked a scrappy Hawks team, and while the Heat made things interesting, this was a game that Atlanta had under control for the most part.
Boston itself was likely gearing up for a potential showdown with Miami, but they will now switch gears and turn their focus to the Hawks. The C's were going to be favored to beat whichever team they went up against here, but they can't afford to look past the Hawks like the Heat just did. So let's take a closer look at this matchup and see what the Celtics need to do to beat the Hawks.
How Celtics can beat Hawks in their first-round playoff series
Prior to the Heat-Hawks matchup, I wrote that fans should be pulling for Atlanta to come out on top in this game. It didn't seem inherently likely given Miami's playoff pedigree, and all the turmoil surrounding the Hawks, but we need to give credit where credit is due; Atlanta came out and punched Miami in the mouth, and the Heat never really recovered.
Not to take anything away from the Hawks, but the main takeaway from this game for many fans (myself included) probably was how bad the Heat looked rather than how impressive the Hawks were. Atlanta played a good game, but for the most part, Miami missed tons of open looks, and got mauled on the glass, particularly when it came to allowing the Hawks to grab offensive rebounds.
Some folks have been pushing the “be careful what you wish for” narrative, but the Celtics still look like a slam dunk to wrap up this series in quick fashion. There will be some tough matchups on both sides of the ball, but Boston is built to go on a deep playoff run, and their star power at the top and depth on the bench should be a huge help for them here.
The Hawks two most dangerous players are Trae Young and Dejounte Murray. The star backcourt duo haven't always been on the same page in their first season together, but they both put together strong outings against the Heat (Young: 25 PTS, 8 REB, 7 AST, 8-18 FGM, Murray: 18 PTS, 6 AST, 5 REB, 7-16 FGM) and will be the top two players Boston will focus on defensively.
The good news is that the Celtics have tons of options to throw at these two. Chances are Derrick White will remain in the starting lineup over Robert Williams III for this series to match what the Hawks run in their starting lineup, and both White and Marcus Smart are strong options to stick with Young. Both guys could guard Murray too, and Jaylen Brown could even see some time on him as well.
Going small could be a bit of a risk given how the Hawks just destroyed the Heat on the glass on Tuesday, but Boston is a team full of willing rebounders, and their 78.5 defensive rebounding percentage this season was tops in the league. If they need to, they can match Williams' minutes against Clint Capela's, but Al Horford is such a mismatch against Capela on offense that he will be given the first crack at him here.
Offensively, the Celtics will likely be able to do whatever they want against the Hawks. Murray is a strong defender, but there isn't really anyone else on Atlanta who will strike fear into Boston's best offensive players. Young is an easy mismatch candidate, and Brown and Jayson Tatum will almost always be searching him out on offense. And even if he doesn't switch, Smart has a history of bullying Young inside the three-point line for easy baskets.
The Hawks really don't have an answer for Tatum or Brown, which likely swings the pendulum in the C's favor by a wide margin. Murray can hold his own against one of these guys, but who else is going to guard the other guy? Chances are Tatum is going to roam free this series and pick on whoever is lined up across from him. Coming off an MVP caliber season, it would be safe to expect a big series from Tatum here.
Atlanta does have some length to themselves, which could make things a bit more difficult than initially expected, but Boston is one of the best all-around teams in the league this season. The Hawks managed to get a great showing from their bench against Miami (53 combined points) but Boston has the depth to limit these guys as well. If Young or Murray don't have huge games, the Hawks are going to be in a lot of trouble.
On paper, this seems like a matchup Boston should win in four or five games. Of course, anything can happen in the playoffs, and while the Celtics had some rocky stretches along the way, they finished their season playing some of their best basketball of the year. The Hawks may be able to steal a game or two, but the Celtics have the firepower to put them to bed with ease, and that's what they should be expected to do at the end of the day.