Through two games of the Celtics’ first-round playoff series, the No. 2 seed sure doesn’t seem so bad — all thanks to the Atlanta Hawks.
When the Celtics missed out on the Eastern Conference’s top spot, conversation began about a potential rematch against Miami, their conference finals opponent from a season ago. The Heat, even with a 44-38 record and dismal offensive rating, could still present a challenge, because of their physicality, All-Star forward Jimmy Butler, and veteran coach Erik Spoelstra.
But Atlanta spoiled Miami’s chance to avenge last year’s dramatic exit. Despite a three-game gap in their regular-season records, the Hawks upset the Heat in the play-in game and seized the seventh seed.
The Celtics, though, emerged as the real winner.
Instead of battling against the postseason-tested, tough-nosed Heat, the Celtics find themselves cruising against the young, identity-searching Hawks.
The Celtics wanted the No. 1 seed. After sitting atop the standings for the bulk of three months, they seemed well on their way. Then the Milwaukee Bucks sneaked ahead in late February and never dropped back, leaving the Celtics to settle for No. 2.
“When Milwaukee took the No. 1 seed from us after the [All-Star] break, it was sort of a shock to us, that we had dropped,” Malcolm Brogdon said in March. “That’s something we want. We want the No. 1 seed.
“I think this team understands the importance of having home-court advantage in the playoffs. That’s something we’re going after.”
The biggest impact of losing out on the No. 1 seed would emerge in the conference finals, but only if the Celtics end up facing the Bucks.
For now, the No. 2 seed seems to be working out just fine.
If Games 1 and 2 are any indication, Atlanta is no match for Boston. The Celtics led by as many as 32 on Saturday and 22 on Tuesday. The question doesn’t seem to be whether their opponents will win the series, but whether they will win a game.
Even when the Hawks jumped out to an early 22-11 lead in Game 2, it didn’t take long for them to return to the familiar place of playing from behind. Brogdon connected on a half-court heave at the first-quarter buzzer to put the Celtics up, 28-25, and they didn’t trail for the remainder of the game.
The Hawks want to believe a trip to State Farm Arena will give them a boost for Games 3 and 4. But they’re going to need help from more than just the crowd to challenge the Celtics.
Through two games, Trae Young, Atlanta’s franchise player, has shot 14 of 40 (35 percent) from the field and committed 10 turnovers. He finished Game 2 as a minus-18 — by far the lowest number among the Hawks’ starters. As he stood at the free throw line in the fourth quarter, fans at TD Garden chanted, “Overrated!”
“I’m going to be better at home,” Young said. “I didn’t play my best [Tuesday], but I know I will going forward. I’m not worried.”
Added Hawks coach Quin Snyder, “Trae will be the first one on the plane watching the tape and trying to figure out ways he can play better.”
The Hawks can say all the right things, but their play speaks for itself.
If the Celtics manage to take both games on the road, then their spot as the No. 2 seed gets even cushier. Game 4 is scheduled for Sunday, with the conference semifinals set to begin April 29 at the earliest. A sweep would give them five days off.
If the Hawks manage to win a game, the Celtics, as long as they stay healthy, still should not feel threatened. If the Hawks somehow win two, then the perks of this matchup crumble.
As the series stands, though, the Celtics certainly seem to be in good position at No. 2.