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GARY WASHBURN I ON BASKETBALL

What adjustments must the Celtics make?

Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas missed 11 of 15 shots in Tuesday night’s Game 2.JASON GETZ/USA TODAY SPORTS

It should come as no surprise that the Atlanta Hawks are stifling Isaiah Thomas defensively, preventing him from attacking the basket with three defenders breathing on his headband and forcing him into rushed decisions.

The Celtics returned to Boston on Wednesday after losing the first two games of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference first-round series. In Game 1, the Celtics found an offensive rhythm and scored 67 second-half points, but still lost, 102-101.

In Tuesday’s Game 2, the Celtics set the game back 60 years with a 7-point first quarter and were never within striking distance for the final three quarters. Thomas missed 11 of 15 shots, five of six 3-pointers, and didn’t make a significant offensive contribution until the game was decided.

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Now Thomas needs to make an adjustment. He is shooting 33 percent for the series, missing 7 of 12 shots at the rim. And while Thomas is a solid 3-point shooter (35.9 percent during the regular season), he is not elite, and he has been forced to shoot most of his threes — 8 of 14 – from the elbow.

Thomas’s best spots for 3-pointers are the corners. According to NBA.com, Thomas converted 56.8 percent of his regular-season 3-point attempts from the left corner (league average is 37.4) and 38.7 percent from the right corner (slightly above the league average).

The Hawks have forced those elbow shots and Thomas is 2 for 8 on them in the series. The Hawks have dared the Celtics to shoot 3-pointers, which has not been a strength all season. The Celtics love to shoot threes, but they aren’t efficient at hitting them.

The Celtics are just 16 for 63 on 3-pointers in the series (25.4 percent), but they are going to have to win the series from beyond the arc because of Atlanta’s size and shot-blocking prowess.

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“We’re just giving ourselves no chance by getting down by 20 points early in the game,” Thomas said. “They are quick to the ball, though. There’s a lot of openings that may look open, and once you get to the hoop there’s two or three guys around you. Give them credit on that. But I haven’t thought of Atlanta as a scary defensive team where you’ve got to go in there and second-guess yourself on blocked shots like a DeAndre Jordan or Hassan Whiteside. But they’re good at it, and we’ve just got to make adjustments.”

The key to Thomas’s success for the remainder of the series is the offensive success of teammates. Besides Thomas, the Celtics are shooting 34.4 percent in the series and 11 for 47 from the 3-point line. That means the Celtics are doing a horrible job of stretching the floor, allowing Atlanta to keep defenders in the paint and prevent Thomas from driving to the basket without major traffic.

According to NBA.com, Thomas converted 50.2 percent of his shots at the rim during the regular season and those shots were 45.4 percent of his total attempts. In this series, Thomas has only attempted 12 shots at the rim, 33 percent of his total.

The Hawks have turned Thomas into a jump shooter, and at 5 feet 9 inches he’s going to have to shoot the ball over defenders nearly every time. Without Avery Bradley (hamstring) and Kelly Olynyk (shoulder), the Celtics are missing two players with the ability to stretch the floor.

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The rest of the roster is filled with players — including Marcus Smart, Jared Sullinger, and Jonas Jerebko — capable of hitting the occasional three but who don’t scare the Hawks enough to stretch the defense.

It also hasn’t helped that the Celtics have trailed by a combined 32 points at halftime of the two games, meaning there are fewer transition opportunities because the Hawks are scoring. Also, with the Celtics being forced to score on nearly every possession to come back from these monumental deficits, the pressure is more on Thomas to make the perfect play.

The All-Star guard is guilty of his share of questionable shots, but it is those shots that get him warmed up, especially after slow starts. In the Celtics’ epic win over the Golden State Warriors on April 1, Thomas scored 2 points by halftime but had 18 in the third quarter. But teammates were making shots, and Thomas took advantage of stellar floor spacing.

It would be interesting to see how Thomas would fare if the Celtics weren’t getting pounded in the first quarter. The Celtics have trailed by a combined 28 points after the first quarter of the two games, leaving little margin for error for the offense and allowing the Hawks to keep their defenders in the paint.

“We have to start the game off a lot better,” Thomas said. “The playoffs is hard to make those comebacks and it’s hard to get out in transition when all the team is doing is scoring. If we just lock in and focus on starting the game a lot better, it will make it easier for us to get out in transition.”

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And then the Celtics, and Thomas, may begin resembling themselves.


Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.