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GARY WASHBURN | ON BASKETBALL

Celtics have a lot to prove in Game 3

Coach Brad Stevens has been examining game film and studying lineups to find ways for the Celtics to beat the Hawks.Jessica Rinaldi/GLOBE STAFF

Brad Stevens remains steadfast in his philosophy and has brilliantly led the Celtics back to respectability. But in Stevens’s three years coaching the team, the Celtics are 0-6 in the postseason leading up to Friday’s Game 3 of their Eastern Conference first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks.

In the first two games, the Celtics fell behind by a combined 28 points after the first period, played from behind the entire two games, and looked awful offensively. Doubts are starting to arise as to whether the Celtics are as far along in their progress as initially thought.

To legitimize themselves, to a certain extent, the Celtics need a playoff win. They have to win Game 3 not only to stay in this series but to prove they are going forward and not just standing still.

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This is a win-loss business. Reaching the playoffs for a second consecutive season was quite an achievement for the Celtics, but winning a playoff round would truly be the next step in Boston’s rebuild. The situation went haywire when the Celtics lost their grip on the conference’s No. 3 seed, and had to play the Hawks in the opening round without home-court advantage.

The matchup is difficult for the Celtics. Atlanta is better at doing things the Celtics take pride in. The Hawks are better shooters and better defenders. But it’s rather stunning that through the first two games, the Celtics have yet to solve their first-quarter doldrums or find a way for All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas to flourish.

Stevens has had nearly three days to prepare for Game 3, to examine game tape, consider lineup changes, and rotation adjustments. The Celtics have to be better on Friday.

An excuse can be made for last year’s first-round sweep. The Celtics were playing LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They were an upstart bunch and ran into a juggernaut; still the Celtics lost the final three games of the series by a total of 24 points. There were no embarrassing performances. Boston played hard and lost to a better team.

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That isn’t the case this year. The Celtics have been inept in stretches in the first two games. They have played scared in stretches. They have played right into Atlanta’s hands by taking rushed 3-pointers or forcing shots against two or three defenders.

Now all the pressure is on the Celtics to change the course of the series with two home wins. All the Hawks need is one victory in the next two games to take full control of the series. The question is whether the Celtics have enough faith in themselves to make it a series.

“Obviously, that’s frustrating,” Stevens said of the 0-6 playoff record. “But I look at last year as we were obviously playing the team that was playing at a really high level. We did a lot of good things. And we played really well on the defensive end in that series. We’ve done that again in the first two games.

“Where we need to play a little bit better is in transition and getting better offense. That’s the reality of the situation. We’re playing another really good team. When you look at Atlanta, especially since the All-Star break, they have played as well as anybody. We have to be better. But I don’t see our guys being overwhelmed by the collective number (six); I think we’re more focused on 0-2 than last year’s 0-4.”

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It is typical of Stevens to credit the opponent, as he should. But the Hawks aren’t the Cavaliers. The Celtics should be more competitive in this series.

Atlanta did win 15 of its final 21 regular-season games. But two of those losses came to the Wizards. They are beatable. The Celtics just have to execute better. After holding Kyle Korver to 1-for-10 shooting in Game 1, the Celtics allowed Korver to hit five 3-pointers in the first half of Game 2, which is inexcusable.

“It’s not like it’s a completely different game,” rookie R.J. Hunter said of the playoffs. “I just think cuts are harder and everybody is playing just a tad bit harder. As hard as [Korver] cuts in the regular season, he’s cutting two times harder and he’s doing it all game. I think I got lost a couple of times watching the ball.”

Hunter is right. Players play harder in the playoffs. Every possession is more important. The plays are more precise. Weaknesses are easier to expose. The Celtics haven’t adjusted to playoff basketball yet and that’s been the most disappointing aspect of the first two games.

At least the Detroit Pistons, who are talent short in comparison to the Cavaliers, are giving their best. They at least have Cleveland’s respect. The Celtics have done little to earn Atlanta’s respect or force the Hawks to make any adjustments.

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All the pressure is on the Celtics on Friday. This organization needs a playoff win or else this season will be viewed as a disappointment.


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