The Boston Celtics got the job done on the road, finishing their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks with a 128-120 victory on Thursday. This series took one game longer — and a closer one at that — than the Celtics would have liked, in part because they weren’t as good defensively as they’ve been in the past.
The Celtics, who ranked second defensively in the regular season, seemingly had no defensive weak spots in the top seven of their rotation. But the Hawks certainly found one in Game 6, allowing them to score more than 120 points per 100 possessions for the third time in the series.
Of course, the Celtics’ offense, which also ranked second in the regular season, was even more efficient; they scored 18 points on their final nine possessions of the series. Boston’s stars made both big buckets and good reads.
Here’s a look at the good and the bad for Boston from Game 6:
1. Target: Al Horford
The Celtics began Game 6 with Jaylen Brown guarding Clint Capela and Al Horford on De’Andre Hunter. The Hawks took a few possessions to adjust, but they eventually started attacking Horford from every angle. Hunter took him into the paint on an iso drive. Five possessions later, Trae Young got Horford on a switch, drove and got an and-one.
And then it was John Collins’ turn. Dejounte Murray couldn’t get to the rim against Horford, but Collins took a kick-out pass and put the 36-year-old in the blender:
The Hawks’ attacks on Horford continued throughout the night and they racked up five points on a single third-quarter possession by twice putting Horford into pick-and-rolls (one, two). Midway through the fourth quarter, Collins got a wide-open, pick-and-pop 3 when Horford couldn’t recover after dropping back on one pick-and-roll:
He switched the same action a few possessions later and Collins was able to post up Malcolm Brogdon for two more points.
With the Celtics set to face the Philadelphia 76ers in the next round, Horford will be tasked with defending Joel Embiid. But the bigger challenge might actually be defending pick-and-roll actions with the super-quick Tyrese Maxey.
2. Stars close
After a Young lob to Capela (in which Horford was a little slow with weak-side help), the Hawks led by three. But the score over the final five minutes was Boston 18, Atlanta 6. And some of that 18 was the result of the Celtics’ individual talent. First Brown drained a 3 over Murray. A little later Tatum did the same to Collins. And he followed that up with a vicious tip dunk when Hunter failed to box him out.
Brown also had a monster block on a Murray drive after initially getting turned around:
And running pick-and-roll at Robert Williams III was not as good of a strategy as doing the same with Horford.
3. The right plays
Tatum and Brown also trusted their teammates down the stretch. The go-ahead basket came when Tatum isolated against Hunter on the left side of the floor. Young zoned up to Tatum’s right and Marcus Smart dove behind him. Tatum gave up the ball, Smart drew help from the weak side, and kicked it out to a wide-open Horford:
With the Celtics up five, Brown isolated against Murray (who the Celtics attacked pretty often on Thursday), drove, drew help, and kicked the ball out to Smart for an open 3. And on the following possession, Tatum got off the ball when Young blitzed the pick-and-roll and Smart got a layup when no help came from the baseline.
The Celtics had the third most efficient offense (118.8 points scored per 100 possessions) in the first round. They have stars that can get buckets, but decision-making will be critical against a Philly defense that held Brooklyn to just 102.5 per 100 in their four-game sweep.
Game 1 is in Boston on Monday (7:30 ET, TNT).
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