BOSTON – Ray Allen had been texting his teammates near midnight, "You still up?" and again at 2:30 a.m, and ultimately the responses trickled into him as Saturday bled into Sunday morning. Out of nowhere, the Atlanta Hawks delivered one final victory over the Boston Celtics, a sleepless night.
Together, the sheepish Celtics dragged themselves to the Garden for Game 7 and delivered a predictable pounding of these young, immature Hawks, whose legs and leaping didn't travel in the NBA playoffs.
Once the Celtics had stepped out of the way of the biggest playoff series disaster in NBA history with a 99-65 victory Sunday afternoon, the owner, Wyc Grousbeck, had come out of the winning locker room with a cheerful declaration that he had given the game ball to Doc Rivers, to commemorate Rivers' first playoff series victory as a coach. "If anyone is interested, Doc did get the game ball (for) winning this series, the first of his career."
And so to watch Kevin Garnett give the throat slash gesture and bark, "It's over," to a screaming sellout near the end of the Game 7 trashing, to witness the euphoria for a series that should've been a sweep, leaves you wondering: Why were the Celtics celebrating when they should simply be slinking to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals?
For all the big championship ideas born out of the greatest turnaround in NBA history, this seven-game struggle against the Atlanta Hawks was a dramatic reminder that the thirtysomething core of this renaissance – Garnett, Allen and Paul Pierce – had moments when they looked unsure of themselves, when they lost purpose and poise. Old demons returned for them: KG passing on big shots, Pierce losing his cool and Allen losing his shooting touch.
Maybe the Celtics acted like the kids walking out of school at 5 o'clock, bragging about how well they had behaved in detention. They weren't so much embarrassed about getting dragged seven games with the Hawks, as they were emboldened to survive the first true adversity these Celtics shared.
"Bad matchup," an old Boston playoff sage, P.J. Brown promised. "That happens with teams."
As it turned out, the Hawks preyed on the Celtics' vulnerabilities. After a scraggily 37-victory season, the Hawks were that mid-major NCAA tournament team with three victories that you just knew would get crushed in the Elite Eight, never breaking through to the Final Four. They didn't have the stomach to steal a Game 7 on the road – never mind compete. Joe Johnson, a magnificent talent, re-engaged his campaign for the dysfunctional Atlanta ownership to surround this dynamic young team with what it desperately needed in this series.
"We need veterans," Johnson said. "We need leadership. It's all out on the line and we didn't do nothing about it."
Nevertheless, these Hawks had two things that the Celtics privately feared could undo them this season: a running team and big, athletic forwards.
"At home, we ran them into the ground," Johnson said. "We wore them down in the fourth quarters every game there. They were too tired at the end. But they've got home court all the way through the playoffs, so if you can't win in Boston, you're in trouble."
To dismiss this seven-game series as merely a product of the Hawks' young legs underestimates the Celtics' uncertainties. They are long on regular season accomplishments and short on playoff production. James Posey and Sam Cassell have championships, but Garnett, Pierce and Allen bring postseason baggage to these playoffs.
LeBron James has done a masterful job of setting the stage for the Celtics series, conspiring with his coach, Mike Brown, to make the world believe he had been pummeled in the Washington Wizards series. The Wizards rate as one of the softest defensive teams in the Eastern Conference, but between James' bellyaching and Brown pounding podiums, the Cavs had referees and league officials treating the Wiz like the Bad Boy Pistons.
For them, it'll be fascinating to see if they can carry that narrative into the Eastern Conference semifinals. This was effective against the Wiz and privately the Celtics wonder if the precious treatment of the Cavaliers' superstar gets transferred to them now. Even the Celtics were surprised that Darius Songailia's hit in Game 5 on James cost the Wizards forward a Game 6 suspension.
P.J. Brown goes back to those old Knicks-Heat playoff series and sighs over what passes for rough play these days. "It's a different league now," he said. "If they wanted to fine him, fine, but I didn't think it warranted a one-game suspension." James won't beat the Celtics alone, but officials are conditioned to protect him. Boston wonders whether its league-best defense can be framed as the bully in this series, the way one of the league's worst in Washington had been before it.
Bad matchup or bad omen?
Game 1, Tuesday night in the Garden. All those young legs in Atlanta, all that greatness in King James, and toughness in Detroit, and championship pedigrees on those Western powers, and one truth is still unchanged in these playoffs: If you can't win in Boston, you're in trouble.