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Behind Isaiah Thomas, Celtics make a series of it

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Isaiah Thomas (L) drove past Atlanta Hawks Jeff Teague during the first quarter at TD Garden.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Brad Stevens changed his starting lineup. The Celtics changed their start and Isaiah Thomas is starting to get the hang of playoff basketball. Now, the Celtics are far from finished in their first-round playoff series with the Atlanta Hawks.

Forget a funeral dirge for these Celtics, they offered a hoops revival hymn for the Parishioners of the Parquet on Friday night with a 111-103 victory over the Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at TD Garden. The Celtics might have gone a little flat in the middle, but they hit the high notes in the first quarter and the fourth quarter in a joyous display of playoff basketball that resuscitated their chances in this series.

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Highlighted by a career-high 42 points from Thomas, the first playoff win of the Brad Stevens era ensured the series will return to Atlanta and that the Green gestalt is not a regular-season mirage. The two faces of the franchise, Stevens and Thomas, finally looked like themselves in a playoff game, after losing their first six together.

This was another step in their NBA education. With Bill Belichick and the Patriots coaching staff in the building, including mysterious gridiron eminence grise, Ernie Adams, Stevens pulled out all the right stops from a strategic standpoint. Thomas, who had shot a combined 29 percent in his last four playoff games, shot 50 percent from the field and defied both his size and the Hawks defense when it mattered most, creating offense.

Instead of focusing on who they don't have — Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk — the Celtics can now focus on what they do have — an opportunity to participate in an honest-to-goodness playoff series, not just be basketball bystanders as some other team races to the next round. That happened last season, when the Celtics were unceremoniously swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

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And the specter of another sweep loomed after the Celtics dropped the first two games of the series in Atlanta in disheartening fashion.

But Thomas wouldn't have it. Thomas drilled a huge 3-pointer from just inside the Red Auerbach signature motif on the parquet with 1:53 left that put the Celtics up, 108-101, and gave the Celtics a must-have game.

"I think we don't really talk in terms of has to have, but we talk in terms of have to compete," said Stevens.

"[Game 2] was tough. It wasn't like our guys didn't want to compete. We just got hit with a buzzsaw in the first four minutes. We were out of it. We just got knocked out of it.

"I knew we were going to compete tonight. I was just worried that we were going to run the first lap of the mile too fast and not have anything at the end of the day. But we did both."

The Celtics came into Game 3 shooting just 34.2 percent from the floor in the series. On this night, they shot 46.3 percent from the field.

Unlike Games 1 and 2, where the Celtics fell behind by 19 points in the first half and 21 points in the first quarter, respectively, there was no somnolent start this time.

Back on its home turf, it was Boston that built a first-quarter bulge.

To try to awaken his dormant, rim-denting offense, Stevens inserted forward Jonas Jerebko and guard Evan Turner into the starting lineup in place of Jared Sullinger and Marcus Smart. The idea was to create more space for Thomas to operate.

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Stevens's move paid immediate dividends. The Celtics scored just 7 points and shot 13 percent in the first quarter of Game 2. They topped that first-quarter total just 2:24 into Game 3, when Jerebko drilled a 3-pointer to give them a 9-4 lead.

Thomas came in shooting just 33 percent in the series. He scored 16 points of his 19 first-half points in the first quarter.

Jerebko finished with 11 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 assists and the Swede even tossed a nifty behind-the-back to Terry Rozier to set up a long jumper.

The Celtics led by as many as 20 points in the first half. They went into the locker room with a 57-45 lead. The 57 points were just 5 fewer than they scored in Atlanta in the first halves of Games 1 and 2 combined.

When the Celtics scored the first 7 points of the third quarter, there was little cause for concern for the sea of green fans at the Garden.

But the Hawks whittled away at the Boston lead, as the Celtics offense reverted to its south of the Mason-Dixon Line form. Suddenly, it was 79-78 at the end of three, and that was only thanks to a buzzer-beating floater from Jerebko.

A night that didn't look like it would end in nail-biting basketball suddenly saw the Celtics one quarter away from returning to the Garden on Sunday with the possibility of being swept out of the playoffs for the second straight year.

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There was a nervous murmur of disbelief from the Garden crowd when Dennis Schroder, who became Public Enemy No. 1 after he got a double-technical in a tangle-up with Thomas in the first, gave the Hawks an 85-84 lead with 9:29 to go, Atlanta's first advantage since it led, 4-3.

Schroder (20 points) was one of three Hawks to top 20, along with Jeff Teague (23) and Kent Bazemore (20).

Evan Turner (17 points) hit a jumper and got fouled with 6:36 left for a 3-point play that broke a 96-96 tie. The Celtics never trailed from there.

Thomas made sure of it.

"He was great tonight. It's fun to watch. He definitely carried us," said Turner. "To see him put those type of numbers up in the playoffs is huge."

So, now the Celtics return to TD Garden on Sunday not trying to stave off elimination, but to reset the series.

The Celtics stepped back from the precipice and finally gained some footing in this series.

The next step is showing they can win more than just one playoff game, but that they can win the four it takes to win a series.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.