The Hawks, who have been playing much better basketball of late, return home tonight to take on the red-hot Boston Celtics at State Farm Arena. The game will be nationally televised on ESPN, providing the perfect opportunity for this new-look Hawks squad to show the rest of the world that they belong atop the Eastern Conference standings.
The Celtics might have something to say about it, though. They are winners of seven straight, and at 11-3 on the season, they currently reside in first place in the East. However, that hasn’t been a problem for the Hawks so far this year. They’ve excelled against teams that were expected to be contenders before the season started, picking up a couple of wins over the Bucks, and wins over the 76ers, Knicks, and Pelicans apiece. When the lights are the brightest, this group seems to rise to the occasion, and they’ll need to tonight. With a win, the Hawks would move just one game behind the Celtics for first place in the Eastern Conference.
For Boston, Jayson Tatum is blossoming into a legitimate MVP candidate. He’s averaging just a hair under 32 points per game on 49.1% shooting, to go along with 7.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists. Slow him down, and the Hawks will likely have to deal with Jaylen Brown, who is also averaging over 25 points per game. The Celtics, however, are a team that prides themselves on their defense. Led by Marcus Smart, they clock in at #1 in defensive rating, so it’ll be up to the Hawks All-Star backcourt to keep things running smoothly and avoiding turnovers, where Boston is one of the best at making opponents pay.
If the Hawks are going to win this one, I’m looking right at Trae Young as the X-Factor. He may be averaging 26.9 points and 9.3 assists per game, but he is doing so on the least efficient numbers of his career. I expect positive regression to take place once the sample size increases, but the Celtics will have a unique plan in place to defend Young. The Hawks star point guard doesn’t need to drop 40 for Atlanta to win, but he does need to play a smarter brand of basketball than what we’ve seen from him so far this season. This is the most talented team Young has played on in his career; there must be an emphasis on getting his teammates involved for 48 minutes.
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