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Celtics can’t afford to go soft on Hawks

It’s difficult to determine how to view the first quarter of Game 1 of the Celtics-Hawks playoff series. The Celtics were pathetic in that quarter, or maybe apathetic is a better word.

They allowed 31 points, 54.5 percent shooting, and trailed by as many as 17 points.

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Since then, the Hawks have made just 35 percent of their shots in seven quarters, stifled by a Boston defense that has full respect for the opponent.

And pay no mind to those barbs between Kevin Garnett and Ivan Johnson. Johnson started the exchange by calling Garnett a “dirty player,’’ and Garnett responded by calling Johnson a “nobody,’’ the same term he used to describe Atlanta’s Jeff Teague after he screamed in the face of Ray Allen following a dunk in a March 21 game at Philips Arena.

Don’t be fooled by such language. As the years have progressed and bodies have slowed, the Big Three have had to acknowledge the presence of younger, more athletic, and less intimated players, and pay them respect.

While arrogance and bravado are two reasons the Celtics veterans have remained relevant in today’s NBA - deep into their 30s - Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have begun to reveal a higher regard for their opponents.

That is something that Hawks didn’t do in Game 2, when they failed to capitalize on the absence of Rajon Rondo and Allen and blew an 11-point third-quarter lead. They hardly expected Pierce and Garnett to catapult the Celtics past their younger opposition.

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It’s that type of disrespect that can cost teams playoff series, and the Celtics have a serious hurdle to avoid in preparation for Friday’s Game 3 at TD Garden.

Atlanta forward Josh Smith may not play because of a strained left knee tendon - the injury that forced him to leave Game 2 with 4:20 remaining.

He is officially listed as day to day, but for such a gifted athlete who uses his jumping ability to launch those rainbow attempts, block shots, and soar to the basket for dunks, a knee issue could drastically hurt his effectiveness - and affect the series.

Still, the Celtics have to carry over the momentum from Pierce’s performance in Game 2 and avoid any letdowns in Game 3.

The Celtics faced a similar situation in the 2010 Finals after Allen drained eight 3-pointers in Game 2 at Staples Center to beat the Lakers, 103-94, and they headed home with a chance to take charge of the series.

But in Game 3, the Celtics lackadaisically fell behind, 52-40, at halftime and then, after making their customary run, allowed Derek Fisher to close out the game with a pivotal 3-point play.

While the Celtics won the next two games to send the series back to Los Angeles, they lamented playing so poorly with a chance to take the lead in the series.

The same situation holds here. What it’s apparent the Celtics have figured out the Hawks defensively, they have to use their home-court advantage and the return of Rondo to seize an early lead.

The Celtics have mostly trailed through the first half of the first two games, only to make second-half runs. If they have learned anything about these Hawks, it is that they are not the same old Hawks.

Teague and Kirk Hinrich weren’t around when these teams met in the 2008 playoffs, and weren’t on those Atlanta teams that folded under pressure.

Meanwhile, Pierce and Garnett acknowledge the maturity of Johnson and Smith. Pierce called Johnson one of the league’s top one-on-one players, along with Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki. Johnson is shooting only 31.2 percent in this series (10 for 32) but he is a career 44 percent shooter and is going to break out eventually.

Garnett has had a plethora of beefs with players around the league, but it’s apparent from his comments that he highly respects Smith.

Garnett generally does not praise opposing players, but when talking about Smith, he uses his nickname, “Smoove.’’ When was the last time Garnett referred to an opposing player by his nickname without preceding it with a four-letter word?

When Garnett was defending Smith in the second half of Game 1, Smith pump-faked and drew a foul, prompting Garnett to pat him on the backside in praise.

“I felt like Smoove played real, real good basketball,’’ Garnett said after Smith’s 22-point, 18-rebound Game 1 performance.

Even before the series, Garnett has said, “Smoove, Josh Smith, has played, to me, some of his best basketball.’’

If the Celtics carry a healthy amount of respect for their opponent and don’t expect things to come easy because of Rondo’s return, it will show that even the old guys can learn from past experiences.

The Hawks may not be the Heat, Lakers, or Spurs, but they are a team to be respected, and it appears the Celtics have digested the message a little earlier this time.

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