How Hawks and Celtics match up, plus my series prediction

For the second consecutive year, the Hawks made it through the play-in tournament to earn a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. In another repeat, the Hawks are heavy underdogs to advance to the second round.

Bookmakers have the seventh-seeded Hawks as 7-1 underdogs against the No. 2 Celtics. That’s an implied probability of only 13% for a Hawks series victory. The statistical projection at agrees with the betting markets that the Hawks have only a 13% chance of advancing. The Celtics won the season series 3-0, though the final meeting Sunday in Boston came after both teams were locked into their postseason positions.

Game 1 for Hawks-Celtics is Saturday afternoon at TD Garden in Boston. Here’s how I see the teams matching up:

Point guards

Hawks: Trae Young

Young was fantastic during the Hawks’ run to the 2021 Eastern Conference finals and had the best season of his career in 2021-22. He’s regressed since then. The Heat controlled Young in last year’s playoffs by crowding him with physical defenders on the perimeter. The Celtics will do the same with a deep rotation of guards. Young is an elite playmaker, but the Hawks won’t have a chance in this series if he doesn’t improve his 3-point shooting after he made only 34% of his tries this season.

Celtics: Marcus Smart

Smart is one of the better defenders in the league. Smart is tough, tenacious, annoying and, at 6-4 and 220 pounds, much bigger than Young (6-1, maybe 170). Smart is the one Celtics starter the Hawks can afford to leave open at the 3-point line, but he does have a knack for well-timed cuts to the basket. Young must avoid losing focus when defending Smart away from the ball.


Hawks: Dejounte Murray and De’Andre Hunter

The Hawks traded three unprotected first-round picks to acquire Murray from the Spurs last summer. Murray has been a solid defender and playmaker, as advertised, but his tendency to dominate the ball at winning time sometimes clashes with Young’s desire to do the same. Murray likely will draw the primary defensive assignment against Derrick White, his former Spurs teammate.

Hunter played a career-high 67 games this season. His career otherwise has stagnated. Hunter has struggled to become a consistent scorer because his perimeter shooting is only OK and he doesn’t finish well at the basket. He also struggles to handle the ball on drives and offers little as a passer. Hunter’s defense hasn’t lived up to his reputation, but he can change that by making things hard on Celtics star Jaylen Brown.

Celtics: Derrick White and Jaylen Brown

White joined the Celtics before last season’s trade deadline. The combo guard has proved to be a great fit as he became more acclimated with his new team. White posted a career-best shooting efficiency this season and is great at drawing fouls. White is one of Boston’s many good, versatile defenders, so he’s sure to spend time guarding Young.

Marietta native Brown shot a career-low percentage on 3-pointers this season (33.5%) but still scored efficiently as a rim attacker and midrange jump shooter. Murray and Hunter will have to work hard to keep Brown out of the paint. They’ll have chances to take advantage of Brown’s loose ballhandling and inconsistent defense. Brown missed the final two games of the season after he cut his hand—Brown says the injury happened while picking up a glass vase he knocked over—but he’s expected to be ready for Game 1.


Hawks: John Collins and Clint Capela

Collins averaged 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds in 2019-20. His impact diminished after the Hawks acquired Capela and made him Young’s main pick-and-roll partner. Collins’ career bottomed out this season as his once-accurate 3-point shooting fell to 29%. Collins improved his shooting over the final 20 games, and he’s a solid defender. He can help the Hawks by defending Tatum and making 3-pointers.

Capela’s ability to control the glass and protect the rim are key, which is why Boston likely will try to pull him away from the basket. Capela’s ability to catch and finish lobs helps Young’s pick-and-roll game pop. But Capela doesn’t score away from the basket and that, combined with Collins’ misfires means, the Hawks have struggled to spread the floor to create space for Young.

Celtics: Jayson Tatum and Al Horford

Tatum is the best player in this series. He’s technically a “big” at 6-8, but he’s really a point-guard/wing/power-forward hybrid. Tatum does it all at a high level: handles the ball, passes, rebounds, defends and scores (30.1 points per game this season). Tatum only recently turned 25 and already has been voted All-NBA twice. If Tatum has a weakness, it’s his tendency to play “hero ball” by taking difficult shots. But he’s so good that he makes more of those shots than most players.

Horford has a case to be considered the second-best player of the Atlanta-era Hawks behind Dominique Wilkins. He left the Hawks to sign with Boston before the 2016-17 season and still is a very good player at 36 years old. Horford can shoot, pass, and defend bigger and smaller players. Horford’s ability to space the floor could cause problems for the Hawks if Clint Capela is forced away from the basket.

Key bench players

Hawks: Bogdan Bogdanovic, Onyeka Okongwu, Saddiq Bey, Jalen Johnson

This unit has been good for weeks and was excellent against the Heat on Tuesday. Bogdanovic made a career-high 41% of his 3-point attempts this season. Bey found his shooting stroke with the Hawks after arriving via trade. Okongwu has played the most consistent basketball of his career over the past two months. Johnson’s size, skill and athletic ability have boosted the Hawks as he’s developed his game.

Celtics: Malcolm Brogdon, Sam Hauser, Robert Williams III, Mike Muscala

Boston can match the Hawks’ depth. Brogdon is yet another Celtics guard who can shoot, pass, defend and rebound. G-League graduate Hauser doesn’t do much more than shoot 3-pointers, but he’s deadly accurate (42% on 379 career attempts). Robert Williams is a good lob threat and rim defender but lost his starting spot as the Celtics went with Horford at center to spread the floor. Ex-Hawk Muscala joined Boston via trade in February and worked his way into the rotation as a 3-point shooting big.


Hawks: Quin Snyder

Utah made the playoffs six consecutive years with Synder as coach. The Jazz couldn’t get past the second round, though, and Snyder resigned last summer. Snyder got a hefty salary and some front-office power to take the Hawks job. He’s had mixed results with trying to get the Hawks to play with at a faster pace on offense with more off-ball movement. Snyder, like predecessor Nate McMillan, hasn’t been able to get consistent defensive performances from this roster.

Celtics: Joe Mazzulla

Mazzulla was promoted from assistant to interim coach after the Celtics suspended Ime Oduka in September following allegations of an improper relationship with a team staffer. The Celtics have been just as good with Mazzulla as coach, maybe better. The Celtics named Mazzulla coach in February and signed him to a contract extension. Now we’ll see how he handles his high-pressure job in the playoffs.


Hawks: Outside noise around Young

Young is under pressure to show that he has what it takes to lift the Hawks to championship contention. That’s been a question ever since he entered the league because it’s rare for a small point guard to be the best player on great teams. That issue has been compounded by Young’s reluctance to play off the ball. There are questions about Young’s leadership after two coaches were fired after he clashed with them. Young can quiet the noise with a strong showing in this series.

Celtics: Championship-or-bust

The Celtics survived a seven-game East finals series against Miami last year to advance to their first NBA Finals since 2010. Boston had a 2-1 lead over Golden State before losing three consecutive games, including the clincher at home. The Celtics have won only one NBA championship since the Larry Bird era. Another ring is the only acceptable outcome for this franchise. Losing to the Hawks in the first round would be a calamity.


The Celtics are the defending East champs and won more games this season (57) than last (51). They’re a complete team with a well-built roster, established identity and championship aspirations. The Hawks followed their humbling loss to the Heat in last year’s playoffs by hovering at around .500 all season and finishing 41-41. The Hawks are a mediocre outfit with a flawed roster construction, a new coach trying to create an identity on the fly and a fading pedigree as upstarts.

The Hawks showed some fight against the Heat on Tuesday, but the best they can hope for against the Celtics is pushing them to six games. I don’t see this series lasting that long. Celtics in five.