Why the Atlanta Hawks’ playoff performance wasn’t that encouraging

Atlanta Hawks. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Atlanta Hawks. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /

Despite losing in the first round in the 2023 NBA Postseason, the Atlanta Hawks seemingly had many reasons for optimism due to the way they played against the Boston Celtics, taking the reigning Eastern Conference Champions to six games when most analysts predicted a sweep.

For instance, the fanbase’s growing frustration with enigmatic point guard Trae Young was quieted after the two-time All-Star’s mostly stellar performance, including a fourth-quarter takeover and game-winning three-pointer in Game 5 in Boston.  The vaguely sourced and, at times made up trade rumors surrounding Young were mostly put to bed after his showing against Boston.

There was also a strong performance from Young’s backcourt running mate Dejounte Murray, who had four straight excellent games before getting himself suspended for Game 5 and then limping to the finish line in Game 6. Still, there were times, particularly in Game 3, when he looked like the legitimate No. 2 option fans had envisioned when the team traded for him last summer.

And then, perhaps more impressive than anything, there was the pure heart and determination that Atlanta showed against a team that was quite obviously more talented than them. There were several times, most notably in Game 5, when Atlanta had the opportunity to let go of the rope and call it a season, but they displayed a certain degree of resiliency that evoked memories of the 2021 postseason run. A lot of the credit for that was attributed to new head coach Quin Snyder, who had the team playing with a fire that wasn’t seen under Nate McMillan.

So yes, Hawks fans were justified in feeling optimistic after the Boston series, despite the loss. But as this postseason has worn on and the Celtics have continued to underwhelm their fans, it’s now fair to ask how much credit actually belongs to the Hawks for pushing them to six games.

The Hawks got two games versus an immature Celtics team

The Celtics immediately followed their Game 6 win in Atlanta by laying an egg at home in Game 1 against Philadelphia, another team they clearly had more talent than top to bottom. Following an unbelievably poor performance in Game 5 against the Sixers, it took a choke job that could only be authored by James Harden, Doc Rivers, and Joel Embiid–the three most notorious playoff underperformers of the 21st century–to keep the Celtics’ season alive in Game 6.

Last night, Boston promptly responded by dropping their first game to the eighth-seeded Miami Heat. This isn’t the first time the Celtics have shown signs of playing down to their inferior competition. Last season, many were surprised when Boston was pushed to Game 7 by the Milwaukee Bucks, who were without their second-best player Khris Middleton. And Boston fans remember just how close they were to the biggest single-game choke job in NBA history down the stretch of Game 7 in Miami last year.

Related Story. Trae Young sends strong message on Jayson Tatum. light

The point is, the Celtics have shown at every stop that, for all of the talent they have–and they are the most talented team in the league–they are a mentally weak, immature basketball team.

They are coached by the youngest head coach in the NBA Joe Mazulla, who has found himself a constant target of the Boston media for his unwillingness to call timeouts when his team desperately needs one.

Their closest thing to an on-court leader is Marcus Smart who, for every high-energy winning play he is capable of, also will make a boneheaded decision that costs his team the game (see Game 5 vs Milwaukee last year).

Boston’s two best players, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown, are world-class talents to be sure, but are also soft-spoken and susceptible to folding when things aren’t going their way. Al Horford, as Hawks fans know, is great when things are going well but is not going to be the one to ignite a run when his team needs it.

So yes, Hawks fans should at least ask the question of how much of Atlanta’s first-round relative success was due to their talent level and force of will, and how much was due to Boston once again proving that they always choose the path of most resistance.

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If Atlanta makes any offseason roster moves based on pushing this immature Celtics team to six as opposed to getting swept, they will be doing themselves and their fans a disservice.