WALTHAM — As Celtics coach Brad Stevens met with reporters prior to Thursday afternoon’s practice, he was asked if he was considering lineup changes for Game 3 of this playoff series against the Hawks on Friday.
“Yes,” Stevens said.
He was then asked if he’d made a decision about what might change.
“Not yet,” he said.
It was clear Stevens was not going to give anything away, and, really, there is no reason for him to provide Atlanta any extra intelligence leading up to this critical game. The Hawks have been dominant enough without it.
But after dismal starts in the first two games, there is a sense that a mild shake-up might be imminent. The problem for the Celtics is that with guard Avery Bradley out indefinitely with a strained hamstring, and forward Kelly Olynyk’s sore shoulder leaving him “questionable at best,” according to Stevens, the options are quite limited.
Still, there are options. Forward Jared Sullinger had a strong regular season, averaging 10.3 points and 8.3 rebounds while avoiding injuries and playing in 81 games. But the first two games of this series have mostly been a struggle for him, as the Hawks have packed their defense inside and dared the Celtics to make outside shots.
The Celtics have been outscored by 17.8 points per 100 possessions while Sullinger is on the court. His defensive rating of 112.1 is by far the worst on the team during this series, too. Of the players who have appeared in both games, no other has a rating above 100.
Stevens has mostly been pleased with his team’s halfcourt defense, but the Celtics have been less potent in transition. And since Hawks big men Al Horford and Paul Millsap run the floor so fluidly, it puts added pressure on a player such as Sullinger, who does not.
“We’ve got to beat their bigs down the floor,” Stevens said. “That’s the bottom line. Those guys are really running, putting a lot of pressure on us at the rim.”
Stevens’s lineup flexibility will be considerably affected by the status of Olynyk, the 7-footer whose 3-point shooting is almost essential to help unclog the lane and space the floor in a series like this one. The Hawks blocked a franchise-record 15 shots in Game 2, when Olynyk sat.
If Olynyk plays — or perhaps even if he doesn’t — Jonas Jerebko could be a candidate to enter the starting lineup for Sullinger. Jerebko’s advanced metrics in this series are startling compared with those of his teammates.
In 37 minutes, Jerebko has a net rating of 13.2, by far the highest on the team. In fact, the 5.4 net rating of R.J. Hunter, who has played just 17 minutes, is the only other one that is not negative.
Jerebko is a versatile forward who is capable of switching defensively, hitting 3-pointers, and firing quick passes. With Marcus Smart replacing Bradley in the starting lineup, Boston could dearly use more outside shooting to help Isaiah Thomas’s path to the rim become more navigable.
“Against this team, they really pack the paint and ball movement is really crucial,” Jerebko said. “That’s something that we’ve got to work on. We haven’t really moved the ball well these first two games and they have.
“I’m always ready. I don’t care if that’s starting or coming off the bench first or coming off the eighth man, ninth man. No matter what it is, I’m ready for whatever.”
The Celtics also could opt to go extremely small, inserting Evan Turner for Sullinger. When Boston was getting steamrolled in Game 2, Turner entered the game for Amir Johnson after just three minutes. But with neither Turner nor Smart being 3-point threats, some of the same issues emerge.
If Sullinger sits at the start, he still will have an important role. Perhaps there would simply be more room for him to work against Atlanta’s backup frontcourt that has included Mike Muscala and Mike Scott.
“We need his scoring and rebounding,” Stevens said. “So our focus and attention is how we can help put him in a position to get opportunities to do that as we move forward?”
Ultimately, the Celtics want to be careful not to overreact to losing two road games against a very good team while shorthanded. The playoffs bring a new sense of urgency, particularly with the reality that Boston’s season could end this weekend. But Stevens understands that it is important not to stray too far from the 48-win path his team took this year.
“Hey, we’re deep into the season,” Stevens said. “We’ve got to do what we do better, like I said yesterday, and go from there.”
. . .
Stevens said Bradley remains sidelined, but the hope is that he will be able to begin some light practice activity late in this series. He said if the Celtics advance to the conference semifinals, Bradley could possibly return at some point in that series . . . Hawks guard Dennis Schroder (left ankle) sat out practice and is questionable for Game 3.