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What To Watch For: Celtics-Hawks Game 3

By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- The Celtics aren't in a very good situation as they enter Friday night's Game 3 against the Hawks at the TD Garden, but they're far from dead.

Down 2-0 to one of the better defensive teams in the league is not a great spot, but it's the hole the Celtics have dug themselves with back-to-back horrendous starts to the 2016 postseason. The odds are against them winning four of the next six games (if the series goes that far), but as the team has shown time and time again during the regular season, they aren't going down without a fight.

Tuesday night's Game 2 in Atlanta was one of the few exceptions, a game in which the Celtics had the worst start anyone who watches postseason basketball has ever seen, and they could never really muster up the fight after that game-opening slump.

The one bright spot to it all is that while the Celtics haven't played great basketball, neither have the Hawks. Boston nearly came storming back in Game 1, erasing a 19-point deficit, and had they been able to put together any kind of stretch that resembled professional basketball on Tuesday, they could have found themselves back in that game as well. Both of those disappointing efforts also came on the road, and while Atlanta isn't the most hostile of environments to play in, the Celtics now return to the friendly confines of the TD Garden, a place they went 28-13 in during the regular season.

The Celtics can't win the series on Friday, but they can begin to claw their way back with a victory. Win both games in Boston and all of a sudden it's a best-of-three series, with momentum back on Boston's side, but we don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves. Not after what we saw in the first two games of the series.

But the fact is, the Celtics are not dead yet. They have a lot of work to do to get back into this thing, but don't count them out. Until the Hawks pick up win No. 4 of the series, the Celtics will still have a pulse, and sometimes that's all they need to prove their doubters wrong.

Here's what we'll be watching for when the two teams tip-off in Boston on Friday night:

A Better Start

It's at the point where we're not even asking for a good start -- just a better one. That really shouldn't be hard for the Celtics to achieve after stinking it up in Game 2 with the worst start in NBA playoff history.

Playing the role of Captain Obvious, the Celtics MUST get off to a better start in Game 3. Letting the Hawks jump out to double-digit leads in the opening minutes is what doomed the Celtics in Atlanta. They can't do that Friday night, not in front of their home fans thirsty to see the team they loved to watch during the regular season show up.

How do they pull that off? Even their aggressiveness at attacking the basket couldn't turn things around on Tuesday, as Hawks defenders were waiting at the rim and rejected most of their layup attempts. The Celtics should still be attacking the basket, but better ball movement will open more lanes and potentially more open looks from deep. The Hawks defense seems like they're ready for anything the Celtics throw at them, but they can't lose that aggressiveness they had in Game 2. They just have to make sure more than 13 percent of their shots fall this time.

A Change In The Starting Five

Whatever Brad Stevens has to do to get his players ready to come out like their pants are on fire, do it.

One of those changes will likely be in the starting five, something Stevens has hinted at the last two days but hasn't expanded on. The coach has come under fire lately for not reacting quick enough to Atlanta's runs in the opening minutes, and he may be able to get out in front of it with a change in the lineup.

The real question for Stevens and his starting lineup is in the frontcourt. As good as Jared Sullinger was in the regular season, he's been a wreck against Atlanta. The Boston big man just can't keep up with Paul Millsap or Al Horford when they toe the perimeter, and he should be ready to find a comfortable seat on the Boston bench for Friday night. He played just 14 minutes in Boston's Game 2 loss, and may not even get that in Game 3.

Jared-Sullinger
Celtics forward Jared Sullinger has averaged just 6.5 points and five rebounds in 17 minutes per game against the Hawks. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Does that mean Stevens goes small and starts Jae Crowder at the four, or let someone like Jonas Jerebko take a run in the starting five? He has to do something to get his team going, and that spark may come from a change in the starting five.

A Shorter Bench?

The Celtics' depth is their best asset, but unfortunately at the moment, they're far from being a deep team. Injuries to Bradley and Kelly Olynyk have stretched their normally reliable second unit thin, but Stevens has still been going to his bench in hopes of finding a spark from an unusual source.

So instead of resuming that search back in Boston, Stevens should consider shortening his bench and letting guys like Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder play up to 40 minutes -- if they can do so physically. Both of Boston's stars are banged up and off to terrible starts this postseason, but they're the workhorses that make the team go. Crowder has been a shell of himself since returning from a bum knee earlier this month, but he's still getting it done on the defensive end. And while Thomas has struggled with Atlanta's defensive spotlight shining bright on him, not to mention a lingering wrist injury, he's still a threat to pour in the points at any moment.

It will be enticing to move Evan Turner to the starting five, possibly in place of Marcus Smart (Bradley's replacement in Game 2), but Turner drives Boston's second unit, even when the other four guys aren't doing much. At the moment, he's the only reliable cog to that second unit for Stevens, and is the one piece Stevens shouldn't mess with.

Kelly, Come Back

It took an injury in Game 1 to illustrate just how important Avery Bradley is to the Celtics, and to a lesser degree we saw the importance of Boston's seven-foot three-point shooter in Game 2. Without Olynyk on the floor, the Celtics can't space out the opposing defense as much, closing off potential driving lanes for their slashers. Even if Olynyk isn't hitting his shot, he's still going to get the defense thinking whenever he stands on the perimeter, a luxury the Celtics were without on Tuesday night.

Olynyk is day-to-day and will be a game-time decision for Game 3 -- or as Stevens said on Thursday, "questionable at best" -- but it would make a big difference if he could tough it out, at the very least keeping the Hawks honest along the perimeter.

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