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With Josh Smith out due to injury, Hawks need someone to step up in Game 3 against Celtics

May 4, 2012, 4:09 PM EDT

Ivan Johnson and Paul Pierce Getty Images

The Boston Celtics picked up a solid victory without Rajon Rondo in the lineup earlier this week in Atlanta, evening their series against the Hawks at one game apiece. One has to wonder, then, what might happen on Friday night now that momentum is in the favor of the Celtics, the game will be in Boston and Atlanta standout Josh Smith is a game-time decision due to a knee injury (Update: Adrian Wojnarowski reports that he’s out).

Suffice it to say, the Hawks will have their hands full when the game tips off in the Garden at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN — and that’s before delving in to whether they’re able to stop the machine that was Paul Pierce in Game 2 of the seven-game series.

Pierce was tremendous earlier this week while evening the series, scoring 36 points and grabbing 12 rebounds as he jumped into the driver’s seat while Rondo served his one-game suspension. “The Truth” shouldn’t need to shoulder quite as much of the load on Friday night, though, considering Rondo will be back in the lineup and the early offense will likely be sent through Kevin Garnett if Smith is out (or even plays at less than 100 percent, for that matter).

In all likelihood, then, it would seem the wildcard for Game 3 will be what the Hawks opt to do in the absence of “Smoove” Smith. Their most-likely option is bringing Marvin Williams off the bench —  or maybe even Tracy McGrady considering he’s looked good in limited minutes this series — but it might not hurt to go (relatively) big by inserting NBA Development League stalwart Ivan Johnson into the starting lineup. It would hurt the size in the second unit, but considering Greg Stiemsma isn’t often an offensive force for the Celtics, that might not be a problem as long as Johnson and Jason Collins are able to stay out of foul trouble.

The positives of bringing the bruising Johnson into the fold as a starter are that he’d be able to set an early precedent that easy baskets aren’t going to be an option considered he and Collins have already nearly negated Garnett’s impact on the series. Johnson also matches up well with Brandon Bass and, though he doesn’t exactly bring a lot to the table on the offensive end (save for this, of course), the Hawks offense has been predicated on isolation looks anyway in the first two games of the series. At least with Johnson in the starting lineup, Atlanta would have an advantage as far as rebounds are concerned while leaving a couple of solid scoring options available for a burst off the bench.

As far as the rest of the game is concerned, it’ll be up to the Hawks to keep their offense moving — not just in the wake of what might be the loss of Smith, but also due to a stagnation that has occurred for some reason quite a but during the second half this season (and reared its ugly head more than normal in Game 2, too). Starting guard Joe Johnson addressed that concern during media availability with the Atlanta Journal Constitution earlier this week.

“In the first two, three quarters we are probably at our best running and getting up down the floor. Then in that fourth, for whatever reason–fatigue maybe—we just get a little stagnant and our offense just doesn’t flow as much. That is something we will look at on tape and try to make adjustments, and I am sure we will do better.”

The Celtics don’t have nearly as many things to worry about considering they’re back on their homecourt, they have their starting point guard back and have seemed to do just fine with Avery Bradley getting more minutes while veteran sharpshooter Ray Allen recovers from injury. It certainly isn’t ideal to be missing a starter, but when considering the Hawks are without their best three big men — Smith, Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia — it’s not all that bad when put into perspective.

There’s still a lot of time left in the series, but Game 3 seems awfully important for Atlanta. If they’re able to replace Smith’s production and pick up a win in Boston, all will be well … if they’re unable to do what the Celtics did in Game 2, though, it seems like it’ll be tough for the Hawks to make up lost ground.

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