Celtics Back on Planet Earth
It is the series that wasn’t supposed to be. The series that still is.
The Celtics-Hawks … series??
Just a bit embarrassing for a 66-win team that expected to win four games on cruise control — especially in light of the thrashings administered in Games 1 and 2. But sometime after Game 2 in Boston and somewhere below the Mason Dixon Line, the Celtics lost their mojo. They were clearly without it when they arrived at Phillips Arena in Atlanta for Game 3.
They definitely didn’t find it again until they got back to Beantown for Game 5.
Now, with the Green set for a return to the deep south for Game 6–a game that until Monday was supposed to be permanently tagged “if necessary” on the schedule–I can’t help but think: Maybe this was a good thing.
Maybe the Celtics needed a jolt of life. Maybe they needed to hear the words “greatest choke in Boston sports history” tossed around the city between fans and writers in a karmic game of catch. Maybe they needed to wake up and smell the playoffs.
The Celtics played an entire 82-game season on a higher plateau than the rest of the league — in terms of both intensity and performance. Their critics (who also happen to be Kevin Garnett’s critics) have been saying it all along — that once the playoffs begin and the intensity level rises, teams will be able to close the gap on KG and the Celtics.
The numbers are there to back up the theory. Going back to 2001, the only team to win a title after posting the best regular season record in the league was the 2003 Spurs (and Dallas matched San Antonio’s 60 wins that year). Recent notable unforeseen playoff exits by regular season giants include the 62-win Suns in ’05, and the 64-win Pistons in ’06.
Who can forget last year, when Dallas won 67 games before winning all of two in the playoffs against Golden State.
Thus the theory is sound.
The theory being that it is tough to sustain such a consistently elite performance level when the slate is wiped clean and the competition becomes tougher. For those regular season juggernauts, the record next to the name served to reinforce that air of invincibility for the better part of six months. However, once the playoffs begin and that record disappears, opponents use it as fuel.
What’s more intimidating? The 66-16 Celtics or the 0-0 Celtics?
That’s just it; perception is reality. Obviously the Celtics know how good they are, and with such an apparent round one mismatch on their hands, those 66 wins swelled up their heads when in fact they should have been relegated to the recesses of their collective consciousness.
The Hawks on the other hand, heading back home, saw 2-0. It may sound simplistic but a 2-0 team is eminently more beatable than a 66-16 team. And what happened? The older and cockier Celtics got beaten down by the younger and more exuberant Hawks. Not once, but twice.
Were they panicking when they left Atlanta tied (or better yet, down) 2-2? No. But they were perplexed. They were forced to reevaluate, forced to reflect — not on 66 wins, but on two losses.
What they learned as a result of that reevaluation was that for two games against Atlanta they got away from the traits that had truly defined them all season: defense and hustle.
They didn’t contest shots. They did a miserable job of containing the penetration of Joe Johnson. They allowed Josh Smith to run circles around them.
Most importantly, they got outplayed by a team that showed more grit and simply wanted it more than they did (see: Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia).
So how can all that be construed in a positive way? Because the Hawks were never going to beat the Celtics, even they know that deep down. But the Celtics were inevitably going to suffer a lapse. That’s what happens when you’re wearing a bullseye on your back. Usually in the playoffs, a lapse equates to elimination. Against any other team, particularly the team (Cleveland) likely greeting Boston in the second round, such a lapse would have been fatal.
Consider it a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Now the question becomes can the Celtics channel this infusion of life the feisty Hawks have given them? Can they now re-begin the playoffs in the same fashion they began the regular season?
The answer will come in a Game 6 nobody ever thought was going to happen in the first place.