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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Will These Celtics be Remembered for 66 Wins or for a Game Seven Loss?

It is safe to say that no thought that there would be a seventh game in the Boston-Atlanta series. In my 2008 Playoff Preview, I wrote that Atlanta could beat Boston only if "Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Dominique Wilkins emerge from a time machine." I saw the Hawks in person late in the season and it was simply inconceivable to me that this team could beat a Boston squad that played at such a high level defensively throughout the season. I had my doubts about Boston prior to the season and I thought that four other Eastern teams had a better chance of advancing to the NBA Finals; ironically, if the Celtics lose on Sunday they could indeed be said to have finished fifth since they would be the last team eliminated before the start of round two of the playoffs. Boston's great team defense, the development of starting point guard Rajon Rondo and the surprising play of Boston's bench convinced me prior to the playoffs to change my original view and pick the Celtics to win the East.

The Celtics have won their three home games versus Atlanta very easily but the games in Atlanta have been close and the Celtics have not executed well down the stretch at either end of the court; the Hawks wore out a fairly straightforward Joe Johnson/Mike Bibby screen/roll play in game four but the Celtics never figured out how to defend it. Johnson did not put up huge numbers in game six but he once again made critical shots down the stretch.

The Celtics might have survived their defensive lapses if their offense had not also sputtered in crunch time. Boston has three All-Stars--well, two in game six after Paul Pierce fouled out--but the paradoxical downside to the way that they cruised through the regular season is that they never had to establish exactly what the offensive game plan would be down the stretch in a close game. TNT's Kenny Smith made a great point prior to Saturday's doubleheader: Kevin Garnett is one of the few franchise players in NBA history who cannot just go out and take over a game by dropping 40 points; he is a versatile player and a great defender but he cannot take a game or a series by the throat the way that most great players can (which perhaps raises the question if he really should be considered to be on the same level with players who can do that). Charles Barkley agreed with Smith and said that because of this it is up to Pierce to take over game seven and author that kind of performance. That is all well and good but what if the game is close down the stretch? Who will take the shots? How will the other players react if the ball is not in their hands? It is hard to imagine a team or three stars under more pressure than this: not only will this season be considered a failure if the Celtics lose to Atlanta but this will be called the greatest upset in NBA history and it will likely leave a permanent negative mark on the resumes of Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen--particularly if that trio never wins a championship--because there is no reason that this Boston team should lose a playoff series to this Atlanta team.

NBA history suggests that game sevens on the road are death, particularly for young teams, so the most probable outcome is that Boston will win--but when everything comes down to one game anything can happen: injuries, foul trouble or a career performance by an Atlanta player are all factors that could make the unthinkable become a Boston fan's worst nightmare. Usually in this situation I would predict a blowout win for the favored team but I think that the weight of the pressure of this situation is going to be difficult for the Celtics to handle and I expect this game to be much closer than the three previous games in Boston were.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:46 AM

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