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Three reasons the Celtics should be wary

05.03.12 at 12:06 am ET

Here’s how fast things can change in the playoffs. With seven minutes left in the third quarter of Tuesday’s Game 2, the Celtics were down 11 points on the road and in danger of going down 2-0 in their first round series with the Hawks. Rajon Rondo was at the team hotel serving his suspension. Ray Allen was at the end of the bench in a suit, trying to console his replacement Mickael Pietrus, who had been benched.

They had not made a single 3-pointer in the series and Paul Pierce was in the midst of a 2-for-11 stretch after a hot start. Then Keyon Dooling finally broke through from behind the arc, Pierce went supernova and the defense grounded the Hawks into fine powder.

Now, the Celtics are coming back to Boston with a split and facing a Hawks team that may be without forward Josh Smith, who strained his left patella ligament and is listed as “doubtful” for Friday’s Game 3. They have two days to rest between games, a nice scheduling gift from the league, and if they take care of business at the Garden where they posted the third-best home record in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics could be in full command of this series by the end of the weekend.

Oh, and the top-seeded Bulls were blown out by Philadelphia in their first game without Derrick Rose.

But that’s getting way ahead of things.

The Celtics and Hawks have played five games this season, including the playoffs, and all five have been tight, tense affairs with the Hawks scoring 421 points to Boston’s 419. If Smith is out for an extended period of time, that changes the equation dramatically, but it’s not as if the C’s don’t have injury concerns of their own. From the beginning, this promised to be a close series and the two games have lived up to that promise.

Here’s three reasons why it’s far from over:

The Celtics are having trouble scoring points

No team in the playoffs has scored fewer points per possession than the Celtics, who are checking in at just 90.1 per 100 possessions. (The Bobcats put up 95.1 in the regular season). They’re shooting 41 percent from the floor and have made just 3-of-25 attempts from 3-point range. Outside of Rondo’s Game 1 and Pierce’s fourth quarter, there has been nothing that has worked consistently.

  • Kevin Garnett is just 13-for-32.
  • Pietrus has taken — and missed — five shots, all from behind the arc.
  • Brandon Bass has scored just 16 points and taken only 14 shots.

The Celtics won Game 2 despite breaking the most basic offensive principal in basketball. They took only taking 14 shots at the rim, an absurdly low figure. (The Hawks had 29 attempts). They shot 55 percent from 16-23 feet (11-for-20), while Atlanta was 2-for-14. The lived by the jumper and in Game 1, they died by it.

Getting Rondo back will help immensely. The Hawks decided to play him tighter in Game 1 and he responded by taking 18 shots and scoring 20 points. He’ll get them out of their pick and pop dependency, but it would be a huge plus if they can establish Garnett more in the post. His usually steady jumper has been off and Atlanta’s bulky big men — Jason Collins and Ivan Johnson — haven’t given him any room to operate down low.

The good news for the Celtics is they’ve kept their turnovers down and they’ve attempted more free throws. Pierce has lived at the line and Avery Bradley was able to get himself going with eight trips in Game 2. Those trends need to continue.

Joe Johnson has been an average Joe

ISO-Joe has never been a pleasing form of basketball and late in Game 2 it was downright horrific. Without Smith, and with Bradley hounding Jeff Teague, the Hawks offense consisted of having four guys stand around the perimeter while Johnson dribbled out the shot clock and launched contested jump shots.

Johnson is 10-for-32 in the series and 3-for-17 from 3-point range, but at some point it stands to reason that he’s going to go off. The Celtics have done an excellent job of making it tough for him. Pierce played him well in the opener and Marquis Daniels played huge fourth quarter minutes, allowing Pierce to “rest” on the lifeless Marvin Williams.

With Rondo back, the Hawks can still try to exploit the Johnson-Bradley matchup but they haven’t done much of it in the series. Part of the reason is that Kirk Hinrich has played so well, but that’s an obvious move if they get desperate. (A related question: Why didn’t Atlanta pressure Bradley more in Game 2? They have some tricky matchups for the Celtics to contend with, but coach Larry Drew has made a number of curious decisions that have played right into Boston’s hands, like playing a reserve unit at the start of the second and fourth quarters that simply can’t score.)

Is the Celtics’ strong bench play sustainable?

Rivers wants to use an eight-man rotation. The problem in Game 2 was that 25 percent of that rotation was unavailable. So, he went deep and used players like Ryan Hollins and Daniels. Both played well, especially Daniels on the defensive end. Dooling made his two big 3’s and Sasha Pavlovic was much more aggressive.

It will be interesting to see how Rivers plays it going forward. Pietrus has been maddeningly inconsistent and Garnett and Pierce have both played major minutes. The schedule helps with rest, but playing his veteran stars 40 minutes a night was not in the original gameplan.

Rivers deserves immense credit for his coaching job on Tuesday. He made tough calls benching Pietrus and bringing Daniels into the game in the fourth. Hollins was a surprise sub and he was active and energetic. His offensive strategy helped Bradley handle 40 minutes in the backcourt and he’s been quick to recognize some of the Hawks’ more unconventional lineups and come up with counters.

The assumption in Game 3 is that Rondo’s return will provide a major boost, but the Celtics can’t afford a letdown now they’ve put themselves in such a strong position.

Read More: 2012 Playoffs, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Kevin Garnett
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