Celtics defense returns to peak form in Game 1 win over Hawks: ‘we have a special group with a good defensive team’

BOSTON – Playoff basketball is back, and the Boston Celtics kicked things off with Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday afternoon. They dominated from the jump, getting things done on both ends of the court, but it was their defense that allowed them to earn a comfortable victory.

The Celtics allowed just 19 points in the 1st, a mark that ties Atlanta’s fourth-worst scoring quarter of the regular season. Trae Young and the Hawks were shut down in the paint and on the perimeter, forced to settle for mid-range jumpers instead.

Team defense led the way for Boston, but it was highlighted by incredible individual performances.

“He was physical,” head coach Joe Mazzulla said of Marcus Smart. “His pick-up points were great. He has a presence to be the quarterback on the defensive end, where we can change coverages, change matchups. And when he does that, our defense is special. It starts with him. I thought he brought it both physically and mentally.”

The reigning Defensive Player of the Year put on a defensive show in Game 1, notching one of his more impressive displays of the season on that end. He finished the night with three steals and two blocks.

Atlanta started off the game shooting 1-for-16 from three-point range and finished the night at 5-of-29. Forced to take second-choice shots, Atlanta was completely rattled by Boston’s flocking defense.

While the Hawks’ poor three-point shooting was partly a result of Boston’s elite defensive effort, they also went cold early on. Letting the Hawks find a rhythm in the second half could have problematic effects later in the series, but Boston isn’t resting on their laurels, either.

“Nothing. Each game is its own story,” said Jaylen Brown when asked what it meant for the Celtics to go up by 30 points. “So, we expect to get their best shot next game. Can’t take the team for granted. We let them get a little bit more comfortable in the second half, so I expect the next game for them to be a little bit more prepared, so we got to be a little bit more prepared as well.”

Failure to execute on the offensive end was the downfall of Atlanta, but they managed to outwork the Celtics in other areas. The Hawks dominated the glass, gobbling up 14 offensive rebounds (including five for Onyeka Okongwu).

Despite their success on the glass, Atlanta wasn’t able to capitalize. In fact, the Celtics outscored the Hawks on second-chance opportunities 16-12. Atlanta shot just 4-for-14 on those looks.

While it didn’t come back to bite the Celtics in Game 1, their rebounding issues have cost them plenty of games this year. One look at their first matchup against the Utah Jazz should be enough to scare them into focusing more of their efforts on the glass, which is something they’ve been working on.

“Rebounding is the key to this series,” said Brown. “That’s been a point of emphasis for us in every practice. Try to keep those guys off the glass. They’re young, they’re athletic, and they crash hard. That’s going to continue to be our challenge during this series. Just keeping those guys off the glass is tough. They got some great rebounders on their team.”

Their inability to take advantage of their rebounding prowess was an internal problem, but the Celtics also had a hand in the cookie jar. On Saturday night, even when they managed to earn a second chance, Robert Williams and a swarm of green jerseys were there to meet them at the rim.

“Just his presence at the rim on both ends of the floor,” Mazzulla said of Williams. “I thought he did a good job protecting us in the paint, especially in the first half. And I thought he did a great job of keeping the spacing and creating the right screens and angles for our guys. And so, when we have that vertical threat, that really helps us. He really helps us with the rim protection as well.”

When it wasn’t Williams, it was Al Horford. When it wasn’t Horford, it was Smart. When it wasn’t Smart, it was Derrick White. Atlanta was continuously stifled on the interior, as those four Celtics combined for seven blocks.

With Williams and Horford ready to play help defense and Smart’s and White’s abilities to play catch-up and block shots from behind, the Celtics have a plethora of options on that end of the floor. It makes life easier for everyone involved.

“We have a special group with a good defensive team,” said Jayson Tatum. “I think we pressure the ball, and we have help behind us if we get beat. And not even just the bigs. It was the guards, [too]. Everybody. Just making those second and third efforts. It’s called winning plays. We just try to make as many of those as we can throughout the game.”

Horford, stoic in nature, showed a ton of emotion against his former team. The playoffs often bring out the fire in everyone, and the big man is no exception.

After a long, taxing defensive possession in the second quarter, Atlanta was called for an over-the-back call against Horford. After the stop, Horford grabbed the ball, walked to the other end of the court, and let out a thunderous scream. TD Garden erupted into cheer.

That sort of energy is exactly what fueled the Celtics in their Game 1 win.

“When things are going good, he’s rallying everybody up,” White said of Horford. “When things are going bad, he’s bringing everybody together. That’s just how he’s been since I’ve been here. He makes big plays when we need him. Big, emotional plays. And he was huge for us tonight, and we just kind of fed off of that.”

A lapse in the second half saw Atlanta make a run, but even so, Boston called a timeout and ripped off a 6-0 run that was paired with a big defensive stop.

The Hawks will make runs, and at some point in the series, the run could give them the lead rather than cut a 30-point deficit to 12. Their surge in Game 1 mirrored the same blown leads Boston was giving up earlier in the season.

However, this time around, their defense suffocated the run. If they want to continue to dominate the series as they did in the first half on Saturday, the continuity of their defensive intensity is the key. And they seem to know it.

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