The Boston Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks capped off one of the most grotesque series in NBA Playoff history on Thursday night when the Celtics rallied from a late deficit to score an 83-80 win and eliminate the feisty Hawks.This was a series that, if anyone in the league office has any humanity, will have any evidence of its existence destroyed and its remains sent to the farthest corners of the earth.
Thursday's game six victory, which saw the C's battling against fatigue, injuries, and an increasingly confident team, will be remembered by some for an official's decision to not award Hawks center Al Horford one free throw AND the basketball after he was fouled by Marquis Daniels before the ball had been inbounded in the closing seconds. Make no mistake, this call was so bad that it should have made even the most die-hard of Celtics fans blush in embarrassment. However, what everyone should remember most about this abomination of a series is the way Kevin Garnett, who hasn't always looked particularly spry in the series, put this team on his back in a way not seen since 2004 to deliver them to the second round. Back then he was known as the Big Ticket and threw up 32 points, 21 rebounds, and five blocks in the T'Wolves Game Seven win over the Sacramento Kings at the Target Center in Minnesota.
In this game, with the season likely on the line (be honest, you wanted nothing to do with a Game Seven on the road with Paul Pierce deteriorating thanks to a sprained MCL), KG delivered a similar performance. His final stat line? 28 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks, three steals, and the game winning basket in the closing minute. To be sure, it was a throwback performance and it came in the most crucial of situations. Ray Allen was struggling from everywhere (free throw line included), Pierce was greatly hobbled throughout the night and mostly limited to shooting jumpers, and almost no help was coming from anywhere else in the lineup.
So where did KG summon this incredible performance from? The Celtics center credited Hawks co-owner Michael Gearon, the man who accused him of being the dirtiest player in the league.
"I want to say thank you to the owner for giving me some extra gas tonight. My only advice to him is next time he opens his mouth, actually know what he’s talking about -- X’s and O’s vs checkbooks & bottom lines," Garnett said.
However, despite the wild celebration within the ranks of Celtics fans after the win, and the relief that seemed to spread across the faces of Celtics players, this, as they say, is just the beginning. Or, to quote each and every Terminator film ever made: "They live only to face a new nightmare."
Approximately 320 miles down I-95, a team even faster and more athletic than the Hawks was polishing off it's first series win in nearly a decade by eliminating the (admittedly weakened) top seed in the East to earn a second-round date with Boston. That team? The Philadelphia 76ers.
The easiest thing to do in this situation, and something that is already being done by some fans, is to dismiss the 76ers as a non threat because of their record during the season (35-31), their seeding in these playoffs (dead last among both conferences), and the incredibly lucky breaks that Philly got in round one. I would caution Celtics fans against looking ahead to a likely Eastern Conference Finals match-up against the Miami Heat though.
There are three big factors working against the Celtics in this second round series.
The first and most obvious, is the injury situation with this team. The 76ers, by NBA standards, are the picture of health. All of their core rotation players are healthy and they're firing on all cylinders. The Celtics though, are a wreck. It's well established that KG is battling hip problems that have been affecting him to varying degrees in recent weeks, but he might be the healthiest of the group. Paul Pierce is severely limited by a sprained MCL he suffered last weekend, Ray Allen isn't himself thanks to bone spurs in his ankles, Avery Bradley is battling shoulder problems, and Greg Stiemsma has a bad foot and a case of "I'm a 28 year old rookie playing in the playoffs for the first time" syndrome.
The second factor plays off of the first: time. The loss in Game 5 on Tuesday was a KILLER for this team, because it meant that there would only be one day of rest between the end of the Hawks series and the start of the next one. Had they won Game 5, they would have been afforded three or four days off (maybe more) to rest the myriad of injuries that they're suffering from. Worse yet, the second round will feature at least one set of back to back games, a product of the lengthy NBA lockout and the compressed schedule that came with it. With the exhausting nature of playoff games, back to backs are going to be really tough on a banged up older team.
The third factor is going to be compounded greatly by first two factors, and that's the speed and athletic ability of the Sixers. The Hawks were successful at times trying to run on the aging Celtics, but at their core, it's not a style that suits their best player, Joe Johnson. So as games slogged into the late stages, everything came to a crawl to allow Johnson his isolation attempts, most of which ended badly. The Celtics THRIVE on playing against teams like that. But, this Sixers team will push the tempo at all times with point forward Andre Iguodala and will either win or lose this series based on how effective they are in transition. Combine what should be a very fast and physical tempo with a defense which was just a tick behind the C's in points allowed during the regular season (89.4) and the Celtics injury problems, and you've got a recipe for disaster.
Whether the Celtics are still standing after this series with Philadelphia remains to be seen. They do have some big time advantages, particularly with KG, who will be guarded either by the "seasoned" Elton Brand or the defenseless Spencer Hawes, and we've learned to never question the heart of this particular group, but the injuries are piling up and the team looks to be running on fumes with no relief in sight. Fans have already brushed off the Sixers as a non-entity, but the facts indicate this is another team that will give the Celtics big time problems.