Hawks showed fight, but Celtics outclassed them

Big gap between Atlanta and true contender

The Hawks were almost perfectly average all season. They were something more than that in the postseason. From that perspective, it was a successful run for the Hawks even though Boston eliminated them in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs on Thursday.

But that outlook requires setting mediocre as the bar for the Hawks. They should always aim higher so long as they have star Trae Young surrounded by good players.

“I want to be looked at as a team that should come in and win a championship,” Young said after Boston’s Game 6 victory at State Farm Arena. “Not just be in the picture, just be in the running, I want to come into the season and be a team that people look at like, ‘They can win. They’ve got a chance.’”

Hawks general manager Landy Fields has work to do to make that happen. The Celtics showed that there’s a gap between a pretty good Hawks team and a true contender.

Boston didn’t, as expected, easily flick away the Hawks in the series. The Celtics blew Game 5 in Boston when Young took over. But then the Celtics turned back a spirited effort by the Hawks in Game 6 to win 128-120 and end the best-of-seven series. Boston advanced to face the Sixers in the East semifinals.

The Hawks held the lead with six minutes left in the game. The Celtics took the game back with stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown doing it all. Tatum had five points, two rebounds and an assist over the final six minutes. Brown had three points, a block and an assist.

“Jaylen and Jayson, those dudes, they made some plays tonight,” Young said. “Sometimes you’ve got to tip your cap and give credit where it’s due.”

The Celtics have built a formidable roster around Tatum and Brown. It’s filled with players who can dribble, pass and shoot. The Celtics have enough size and versatility to play a switching defense that stymies pick-and-rolls. Few teams have so many good players who are solid or better at both ends.

The Hawks roster is too flawed to match that, especially defensively. The Celtics exploited Atlanta’s inability to keep good ballhandlers away from the rim and challenge shots once they got there. The lack of ball-stoppers on the perimeter put the Hawks in constant scramble mode on defense.

Boston Celtics' guard Marcus Smart (36) shoots over Atlanta Hawks' center Clint Capela (15). (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)


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Still, the Hawks proved that even a good defensive team like the Celtics can struggle to stop them when their offense is flowing. The Hawks scored 119 points or more over the final four games of the series. Young is the main reason for that — he averaged 29.2 points in the series — but several of his teammates produced offense when needed.

That’s how the Hawks won at Boston in Game 5 with second-leading scorer Dejounte Murray serving a league suspension. In Game 6, Young was 1 of 13 from the field in the second half but the Hawks still had a chance to win. De’Andre Hunter scored 16 points after halftime and Murray had 14.

Clint Capela’s alley-oop dunk on a pass from Young gave Atlanta its final lead, 113-110, with 6:24 to go. Brown answered with a 3-pointer that started an 11-0 run for the Celtics.

The Celtics edged ahead on Al Horford’s corner 3-pointer. Tatum scored back-to-back baskets. He engineered a defensive switch by John Collins and made a 3-pointer over him. Tatum collected Horford’s missed 3-pointer and dunked it. That pushed Boston’s lead to 121-113 with two minutes to play.

Boston Celtics' forward Jayson Tatum (0) hangs on the basket after dunking the ball. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)


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The Hawks still had time. They kept scoring. They just couldn’t get any stops. After Murray made a 3-pointer, Marcus Smart matched it for a 124-116 Celtics lead. Hunter made a 3-pointer to get the Hawks within 124-119. Smart answered with a layup against little resistance from the Hawks.

Young got into the paint with less than a minute to go but left his floater on the front of the rim. He scored 25 points in the first half. Young could muster just five points after the break with Smart hounding him.

“In the second half he was more connected to me,” Young said. “I didn’t have the ball and he was still facing me. They picked up the physicality and the refs was allowing them to play. It was in their favor, so, yeah, it was tough.”

The Hawks made it hard for Boston to close the series on their floor. The Celtics ran out to a 14-2 lead. The Hawks recovered and gained their first lead on Young’s 3-pointer with 5:27 left in the first quarter. Neither team led by more than seven points from then until Boston went up 121-113 on Tatum’s dunk with 2:07 to play.

The Hawks had a real chance to push the East’s No. 2 seed to a seventh game.

“I thought our guys competed at the same level,” Hawks coach Quin Snyder said. “It was clear at the beginning of the game that it was going to be a battle. A lot of plays made on both sides. Obviously, Tatum and Brown were a handful, which we expected.”

The Hawks ended the season on the come. They made it through the play-in tournament winning at Miami. The Heat went on to upset top-seeded Milwaukee in the first round of the playoffs.

The Celtics dominated the Hawks in Games 1 and 2 in Boston. The Hawks won Game 3 at home. They were within four points of the lead in Game 4 with 10 minutes left before succumbing. Young lifted the Hawks to victory at Boston in Game 5 with a brilliant performance that included scoring his team’s final 14 points. He made the go-ahead basket from 30 feet with 2.8 seconds to play.

The 2022-23 Hawks were a mediocre team that played better once they reached the postseason. They’ve still got a long way to go meet Young’s goal of being a championship-level squad.