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The storylines we'll be following when Celtics take on Hawks in first round of NBA playoffs

BOSTON -- After an 82-game season where the Celtics varied from being the best team in the league to a very good team to, occasionally, just an OK team, they are back to being a very good team with the postseason now upon us. 

And while some were worried about a first-round matchup with the gritty, defensive-minded Miami Heat in the first round, the Celtics will be getting none of that smoke. Instead, Boston will match up with the Atlanta Hawks in Round 1, starting Saturday afternoon at TD Garden.

The Hawks stunned the Heat in Miami on Tuesday night, pulling off a 116-105 win that shocked just about everyone who follows the NBA. Atlanta built a 24-point lead in the first half, let that lead dwindle to just four in the third quarter, but answered every Miami run and pulled out the victory to claim the 7-seed in the East.

Their reward is a playoff series against a team that beat them in all three regular-season meetings. Whether the Celtics had everyone in the lineup, a few players missing from the lineup, or turned to their bench in the regular-season finale, Boston had no real issues with the Hawks. (It was Payton Pritchard, Sam Hauser, and Mike Muscala who led the C's to a win over the Hawks last Sunday.)

Maybe the playoffs will be slightly more difficult, with Atlanta feeling pretty good about itself following that upset win in Miami. But this series should never be in jeopardy for Boston. The Celtics should either sweep or win in five games; anything more would be a disappointment.

Here's what we'll be watching for when the two teams tip off their first-round series on Saturday.

Boston's Excellent Defense

There is no denying that the Hawks are a talented offensive team. They play at a pace that very few teams can reach. Trae Young is dangerous and crafty, the kind of player that can hit a shot from just about anywhere -- even spots no player should be able to make shots. Dejounte Murray enjoyed another solid offensive season after moving to shooting guard, and Saddiq Bey found his shooting stroke after landing in Atlanta from Detroit. John Collins had a down season, but he too is a dangerous option for Quin Snyder's offense.

They don't stand a chance against the Boston defense, however.

The Celtics defense rounded into form to end the season, with the team touting a 110.4 defensive rating after the All-Star break -- good for the second-best in the NBA over that timeframe. The Boston defense is in a much, much better spot now than it was when the Hawks torched it for 125 points back on March 11, including a 38-point first quarter and a 36-point fourth quarter. (The Celtics scored 134 points that night, so advantage Celtics.)

Young's head must be spinning, thinking about the fact that even if he beats Marcus Smart, Derrick White or Malcolm Brogdon won't be far to cut off his lane. And if he manages to get to the rim, Robert Williams will likely be waiting to change Young's shot or send it into Cambridge.

The Celtics won't have to worry too much about their perimeter defense this series. The Hawks attempted only 30.5 threes (the third-fewest in the NBA) and made just 10.8 shots from downtown per game (tied for the third-fewest in the NBA). Boston's focus will have to rest under the basket.

The Hawks love to swoop in and feast under the basket. Atlanta averaged 54.3 points per game in the paint, finishing in the Top 10. Clint Capela attempted 8.2 shots per game this season, and 7.3 of them came from within five feet of the basket. Even the diminutive Young averaged more than half of his 8.2 shots per game from within five feet of the hoop.

Robert Williams, this is your series to really shine and rack up the blocks.

Atlanta's Terrible Defense

Now that we're done highlighting one of the best defenses in the league, we'll shift gears to one of the worst. Atlanta ranked 22nd in the league with a 115.4 defensive rating throughout the regular season, and that defense got even worse over the last few weeks. Since the All-Star break, the Hawks have owned a 118.2 defensive rating, ranking 25th in the NBA. In 21 games under Snyder, the Hawks allowed an average of 121.6 points per game. Yikes.

Atlanta also doesn't defend the perimeter very well, either, with opponents splashing home 37.7 percent of their 3-point attempts during the season. The Jays should absolute feast in this matchup, as Tatum averaged 26.5 points off 41 percent shooting (but just 33 percent from downtown) and Brown put up 23 points per game off 57 percent (yes, 57 percent!) shooting over their two games against the Hawks.

Add in the firepower that White and Brogdon add to the mix, plus the always opportunistic Al Horford against his former team, and the Celtics offense should light it up every night against Atlanta.

War Of The Offensive Glass

If the Hawks have any edge in this series, it will be on the offensive glass. Atlanta averaged 11.2 offensive boards per contest, leading to 14.3 second-chance points per game. At least the Celtics were pretty good at limiting second-chance points by their opponents this season, allowing just 12.7 second-chance points per game, tied for the fifth-least in the NBA.

Rebounding will be key, as the C's were just 19-19 when they lost the battle of the boards in the regular season. In their three matchups, the Hawks outrebounded the Celtics, 143-136, though that didn't lead to any victories.

Still, life will be a lot easier if the Celtics can win the rebounding battle this season. 

Bench Battles

The Celtics bench has been incredible all season long, led the team's Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Brogdon. He can score in a number of ways and he can score in bunches, giving Boston exactly what the team lacked during last year's run to the Finals.

But the Atlanta bench is pretty good too, with Hawks reserves shooting a solid 48.8 percent during the regular season. Bogdan Bogdanovich averaged 14 points per game off 44.7 percent shooting (including 40.6 percent from 3-point range) and scored 14 important points against the Heat on Tuesday. Bey was the biggest contributor off the Atlanta bench against the Heat, putting in 17 points while pulling down six rebounds. All four of Atlanta's reserves that saw action in Miami scored in double figures.

While Boston's stars (including Brogdon) should shine this series, they're going to need help from the likes of Grant Williams, Sam Hauser, and potentially even big man Luke Kornet off the pine.

Bad Blood

The Boston-Atlanta rivalry is a tad bit one-sided. There was this Super Bowl against the Patriots a few years back that ended very poorly for Atlantans, and of the eight times the Celtics and the Hawks have met in the playoffs, Boston has won seven of them.

The Hawks did take the last matchup in the first round of the 2016 playoffs. But then that offseason, the Celtics stole Al Horford from Atlanta in free agency. Since then, Atlanta has made a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, but they've also lost in the first round twice and failed to make the playoffs three times.

What does that have to do with this year's matchup? Nothing, really. But the Hawks aren't going to want to get punked, and if they have to, they'll do whatever they can to get under the skin of the Celtics and Boston fans.

Just ask New York Knicks fans how angry Trae Young can make an opposing fanbase. Or ask Marcus Smart, who was booted from one of the regular-season matchups for dusting up with Young.

The Hawks don't stand much of a chance, but the Celtics can't let them annoy and pester them. It's best to just take care of business as quickly as possible and get ready for the East semis. 

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