Celtics-Hawks preview: Keep your eye on . . .

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Celtics-Hawks preview: Keep your eye on . . .

ATLANTA With the season winding down, teams across the NBA will go deeper - and more often - into their bench. Lately, this has been a good thing for the Atlanta Hawks who come into tonight's game against Boston having won three of its last four games and seven of their last 10. Within those 10 games, the Hawks' second unit has been first-rate in contributing to their success. Although Atlanta ranked 18th this season in scoring, they have been the league's fifth-highest scoring team in the last 10 games.

And their bench has been a huge part of their scoring improvement. Atlanta's reserves average 30.2 points this season which ranks 21st in the NBA. In the last 10 games, the Hawks bench is averaging 43.7 points per game which ranks third in the NBA.

As for the Celtics, they too will rely more on their second unit which ranks second-to-last in the NBA in scoring (22.4) per game. As bad as they have been this season scoring the ball, they've been even worse in the last 10 games with an NBA-worst 17.4 points per game. Of course, not having Ray Allen (right ankle) and Mickael Pietrus (knee) has contributed to the team's offensive lulls within its second unit.

While C's coach Doc Rivers acknowledged the C's haven't looked for much offensive punch from its second unit, the team's bench scoring numbers are a bit deceiving.

"What gets lost in our bench points is Kevin (Garnett) scores most of his points with the bench," Rivers said. "Because we bring him back in and its usually Kevin and the entire bench. And for us, we keep our numbers, thats part of bench scoring for us. But when you look at a stat sheet it doesnt look like that."

Bench scoring will most likely be a factor in tonight's game. But here are some other keys to tonight's game to keep an eye on as the Celtics take on an Atlanta Hawks squad that, like the C's, is in the hunt for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: If the Celtics keep as many guys out as expected tonight, Avery Bradley may be the team's best scoring option among the starters. It'll be interesting to see what kind of impact can he make when more attention is paid to him offensively, and he doesn't have the benefit of Rajon Rondo at the point or Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on the floor creating space for him to work.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Sasha Pavlovic vs. Joe Johnson: This matchup will be decided in the first quarter most likely. If Pavlovic can come out and hit a couple shots early, his defense will actually get better Johnson. It's weird, I know. No one is under any disillusions that Pavlovic is going to shut Johnson down. But if he can keep him from being an efficient scorer, the C's will have a much better chance at victory.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Keyon Dooling is expected to get the start tonight, which should take some of the ball-handling pressure off Bradley. Dooling needs to be more than just a facilitator. He needs to provide the Celtics with a bit of scoring, something he has not done much of this season. He's averaging a career-low 3.5 points per game this season and has not reached double figures scoring since scoring 10 points at New Orleans on Dec. 28.

STAT TO TRACK: Both Boston and Atlanta rank among the bottom-10 in the NBA in rebounds per game, so winning the battle on the boards will be huge. The C's rank dead-last with 38.8 per game while the Hawks are No. 23 with 41.3 per game. In the two previous games, both Celtics wins, the C's have averaged winning the boards by six per game.

Does uncertainty for Carson Smith mean Red Sox need bullpen help?

Does uncertainty for Carson Smith mean Red Sox need bullpen help?

BOSTON — Tyler Thornburg’s gone for the season and there’s really no telling when the other set-up man the Sox expected to help in 2017, Carson Smith, will be back.

The Sox have already made inroads, if minor ones, in bolstering their third-base situation and rotation. Smith’s situation leaves a question of whether the Sox will need to pursue help in the bullpen as well.

There's not an easy answer to settle on at this point.

For one, the timetable with the right-hander Smith — whose shoulder has bothered him on the way back from Tommy John surgery — isn’t clear.

“He's in a no-throw [time] through the weekend,” Sox manager John Farrell said Friday afternoon at Fenway Park. “He'll be reevaluated on Monday to hopefully initiate a throwing program. He's responding favorably to the treatment. He continues to rehab as he's been. We have not closed the book in a sense on anything Carson can contribute this year.”

What does this year mean, though? Will they be able to know by July, by the trade deadline?

“Still too early to tell,” Farrell said. “We thought he was days from starting his rehab assignment after his last live BP session in New York [on June 6]. Unfortunately, that was put on hold for the time being. To get into any kind of timeframes, timetables, I don't know that any of us can predict that right now.”

The Sox relievers have done extraordinarily well without either Thornburg or Smith. Can that continue without reinforcements? The bullpen’s ERA entering Friday was 2.94, the second best mark in the majors. Its innings total, 217, was the second. lowest in the majors. 

So it’s not like the entire group is about to collapse from fatigue. But a guy like Joe Kelly, for example, isn’t someone the Sox want to use back to back.

It’s a young group and ultimately an inexperienced group. But Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has already fallen into the trap of trading for premium set-up men twice, and that’s a dangerous road to pursue again. Perhaps a smaller trade makes more sense.

“Well, at this point, we’re open minded to help,” Dombrowski said when asked if he was targeting either third-base or relief help. “I’m not going to get into specifics at this time on what else we’re looking for. Keep an open mind on a lot of ways on which we can improve. We have guys coming back and both the spots, I think Carson Smith is very important to us and our bullpen has pitched great. The other day, we struggled but that was one of the few times we really struggled all year. 

“I think Carson still has a chance to come back and help us this year.”