BOSTON – The narrative for this Boston-Atlanta series thus far has been the Hawks build a fat cushion in the first half that the Celtics chip away at, but never enough to come away with a victory.
Well, heading into Game 3, the Celtics are looking to author a different chapter in this first-round matchup, one that results in their first win of the series.
“Every game is a little different, brings its own story to it,” said Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas. “Play like you know how. We know we have to start better. One thing we gotta do is stop talking about it and be about it and just play.”
The Celtics’ early struggles have been an issue even near the end of the regular season, but was masked by the fact that the playoffs were around the corner which would allow them an opportunity to reset and get back to playing well to start games.
That has not been the case, with the Celtics trailing by an average of 14 points after the first quarter.
It has been a stark scoring contrast for Boston, which averaged 26.2 points per game in the first quarter during the regular season, which ranked 9th in the NBA.
That’s equal to the amount of points Boston has scored in the first quarter of Games 1 and 2 combined.
“It seems like we’re a step slow to everything,” said Boston’s Jared Sullinger. “It’s like we gotta get punched in the mouth before we start playing the way we need to play.”
But that’s not what’s happening.
In the first two games of this series, the Hawks were delivering blow after blow to the point where the Celtics were seemingly hanging on to dear life … and it wasn’t even halftime yet with the Hawks pulling ahead by 20-plus points in the first half of Games 1 and 2.
This isn’t the first time that the Celtics have had a quarter in which they really struggled to generate offense.
But as head coach Brad Stevens pointed out, the frustrating part isn’t that it has happened in the past.
“The frustrating part is it’s happened the last two (games),” Stevens said. “We’ve got to be better at the start. It’s not going to just be about the first six minutes. We have to play well throughout the whole 48 (minutes).”
But that has been among the many elusive dynamics of this series thus far. If you were to take out the first quarter of this series, Boston outscored Atlanta in Game 1 (82-72) and played them even (65-65) in Game 2.
The Celtics are finding that the Hawks are not nearly as easy to come back and defeat as some of their regular season foes like the Miami Heat, who led the Celtics by as many as 26 points in their regular season finale only for Boston to come back and win 98-88.
“We got away with one against Miami,” Sullinger said. “But we can’t keep doing that. What we did against Miami was a fluke. We got them on a back to back. And on top of that, it was the last game of the season so we don’t know what type of mindset they had coming into the game. We have to change it around and understand first quarter starts are very important for us.”
Stevens will try and do his part to better position the Celtics to make shots in the first. But no amount of X’s and O’s can account for guys just not making open shots which has been a bigger culprit than Atlanta’s defense as to why Boston has struggled so mightily scoring the ball.
In Games 1 and 2 the Celtics shot 36.3 and 31.8 percent, respectively, from the field.
“We got guys that can knock down shots,” said Boston’s Terry Rozier who had a career-high 10 points in Game 2. “You at this level, I feel if you’re a pro, you should be able to knock down an open shot at least. We’ve been struggling. It happens to a lot of teams. That’s why we’re in here now getting up a lot of shots.”
Hurting Boston’s shooting efforts has been the absence of Avery Bradley, the team’s No. 2 scorer who averaged a career-high 15.2 points per game this season. He suffered a strained right hamstring injury near the end of Game 1, and he’s expected to miss the remainder of this series.
Boston’s plans to improve their shooting in Game 3 may suffer another blow if Kelly Olynyk (right shoulder) is unable to play. He did not suit up for Game 2 because of the injury. Head coach Brad Stevens said the 7-foot center was questionable “at best” for tonight’s game.
No Olynyk is a huge blow because of his ability to help with spacing. And remember, Boston’s lone win over the Hawks this season was a game in which Olynyk had 15 points in less than 17 minutes of court time.
The Hawks are dealing with injuries to key rotation players as well. Kent Bazemore has some right knee stiffness but team officials list him as probable.
The outlook isn’t quite as rosy for Atlanta guard Dennis Schroder, who suffered a sprained left ankle near the end of Game 2. Team officials classify him as questionable for tonight.