PLAYOFF DIARY: DAY 14

The Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks are going to a game 7, and before any one starts telling me “It’s Golden State vs Dallas all over again!”, let me emphatically announce that this is nothing like Golden State vs Dallas. For three reasons:

1. Before last year’s playoffs started the signs were there that a Warriors upset could happen. The Warriors gave the Mavericks hell during the regular season, Nellie knew every move in Dirk’s book, and Avery Johnson seemed inept at handling Golden State’s small ball strategy. A lot of people predicted that upset. While most of us thought the likelihood was extremely low, considering it was 1st versus 8th the upset was a popular choice.

2. After games 1 and 2 of that series the upset went from being a ‘popular choice’ to a ‘dead set reality’. We had to see it to believe it, and over games 1 and 2 we did. The match up problems, Dirk settling for jump shots against 6-9 defenders, Baron Davis tearing apart Devin Harris and Jason Terry, Stephen Jackson stepping up when it counted – everything the Warriors needed to happen, happened in game 1.

3. Golden State finished the season 42-40 in a tough Western Conference, averaging 106.5 ppg which was second only to Phoenix. There was a well accepted notion throughout the league that when Golden State was firing, there was very little you could do about it. You may have them out-matched at every position on the floor, but if they score 130 points how are you going to win?

The Celtics v Hawks series is completely different. 1) The Hawks gave no indication during the season they had the Celtics measure. They lost all three encounters by double-digit margins, they didn’t appear to have an edge at any position on the floor. Going into the playoffs the popular option was “Celtics sweep” – a Hawks upset wasn’t even an option. 2) After games 1 and 2 of this series the upset went from being a ‘non-option’ to… ummm, well I don’t think there’s even a word for it. And 3) The Hawks were the worst team in the playoffs by far, they won 29 less games than the Celtics, they had a negative points differential when the Celtics was +10, and they were hardly considered a high-scoring team. Going against the best defensive team in the league was a nightmare situation for this Hawks squad.

And yet look what’s happened. We have a game 7. No one on Earth predicted there would be a game 7. I’m not getting ahead of myself, I know the chance of an Atlanta victory in game 7 is still extremely remote. But I don’t care. Right now I’m a little overcome with basketball emotion and a couple of serious man-crushes. The playoffs finally have a game 7, and its Boston vs Atlanta. I can’t even believe I’m typing that.

How are the Hawks doing it?
Much has been made of the Hawks “athleticism”, and it’s cited as a supposed advantage they have over the Celtics. Ok, I can handle that, I can handle that Smith, Childress, Johnson and Horford all have a little more hops and speed than Pierce, Posey, Allen and Rondo. But athleticism is not the reason they are keeping this series alive. They are alive in this series because at home they are playing with an extreme amount of passion and pride. They aren’t being rattled when they go down by double-digits, and they have never backed down from a challenge. This is the one thing that’s surprised me most. You’ve got guys like Horford and Pachulia getting in the face of KG and Pierce – these are future Hall of Fame players who have proved themselves for years over their long careers, but the Hawks are forcing them to prove themselves again. You saw what Horford did to Pierce late in game 4 when Pierce ended on his ass and Horford made the bucket. He got fined for that little outburst, but when you step back and look at that sequence, it was effectively Horford bullying Pierce and to use a phrase one of my friends likes using, “mentally dominating” him. The Hawks have carried that swagger, at least at home, for the full 48 minutes. They have not rolled over like an inexperienced 8th seed is supposed to do. It’s surprising the Celtics, and they’re struggling with it.

Of course it’s not just about their emotion and intensity. They’ve forced a game 7 thanks to some amazing individual performances. I think I love Joe Johnson. I was a big fan of him back in Phoenix (sorry to bring that up Suns fans) and when he went to Atlanta I thought he was in a position to step up and lead the Hawks as a legitimate superstar player. I remember thinking that he was a slightly smaller, less skilled version of Kobe. I still think that. Joe Johnson has all the tools to be on the Wade-Lebron-Kobe level in this league. He’s never reached that level because A) the rest of the Hawks have generally sucked and B) No one gives the Hawks any love these days, including television networks. But this playoffs could be the re-birth of Joe Johnson. It has the makings of a Bibby a la 2002 Western Conference performance, a series that put Bibby’s name in lights as a certified big-time player (and in truth, a series he has not lived up to for the rest of his career). I said the exact same thing about Deron Williams last year (day 35) and we all know was a huge man-crush I ended up having on him. Well today I found myself experience all the symptoms of a man-crush after JJ nailed that ridiculous three with 1:07 remaining. He went on to sink two more FTs, in a performance where you have to say he struggled for 80% of the game, but managed to make the plays that mattered like all the true greats can. Plus, I just love his attitude and mannerisms on and off the court. He didn’t go hollering at the crowd after he nailed that three, he didn’t fly into his team mates for the chest bump on the ensuing timeout. He put his head down and calmly sat down, knowing well that the game wasn’t over. And when it was all over, he spoke with a lot of composure in his post-game interview. He sounded like a man with a job still to do, not a man who’d just lead his team to one of the biggest wins in their franchise’s history.

It’s not just Joe Johnson though. Today Marvin Williams stepped up and nailed a few jump shots, which forced the Celtics to think twice about doubling JJ and gave Horford more room in the post. Bibby had an average shooting day, but there was a stretch late in the 3rd quarter where he went totally agro and looked like the Bibby of old. He found open team mates and took the ball to the hole – even when his shots don’t go down, it’s important for Bibby to at least make the opposition think he’ll take them. Josh Smith was also solid today despite getting in foul trouble and almost brought down my house when he drove in for that viscous dunk over KG. It bounced high off the rim, but if that dunk goes down it becomes one of the best playoff dunks ever. And that’s what J-Smoove is in there for. His rim-rocking dunks elevate the crowd and his team – I know they do because when Smith looks like he’s entering launch sequence I immediately move to the edge of my seat. There’s not too many guys in this league you can imagine rising over KG and throwing it down on his head – Lebron is one of them, maybe Amare, and Dwight might be another, but none of them are playing against KG in this series. Josh Smith is.

What the hell is wrong with the Celtics?
I’m obligated to answer this question because for a long time now I’ve had the Celtics as my #1 championship favourite. Back in March I said that only three things could get in the way of them winning a title. On Day 2 I was making fun of the “Fig Tree” and a little more than a week ago I said “I would genuinely be stunned if Atlanta won a game back home”. I have a lot to answer to. Let me first say that I’ve only seen two games of this series, games 3 and 6 in Atlanta. But from what I’ve seen and read, I can say the following:

  • Boston are obviously having trouble on the road. They aren’t coping with the road crowd, the intensity, and the fact they’re being mentally dominated by the Hawks. It prompted KG to say after today’s game: “I’ve played 13 years, and I’ve been here every year for 13 years. This is the first time I’ve seen this atmosphere like this. That’s the intensity of the playoffs.” When the most intense man in the history of basketball starts admitting there’s something else more intense than he is, you know he’s having his doubts. More about KG later though. The point I’m trying to make is that Boston look so incredibly strong at home it’s almost like they don’t sense the urgency of winning on the road. It’s like they’re pampered in Boston – the stadium and the crowd throw so much adoration at them, the aura of Celtics past hanging above their heads in the rafters, the expectations of city full of desperate fans – it all adds up to a place that is very inspiring for the Celtics and very scary for everyone else. But send them to Atlanta and all of a sudden they’re like the rich school girl sent to camp who doesn’t want to get her hands dirty. They’ll probably go back home and finish the job, but Doc Rivers should be a little concerned because traveling to Cleveland won’t be any easier, and neither would Detroit.
  • Kevin Garnett isn’t himself on the road. One thing I’ve clearly noticed about KG in the two games I’ve watched, is that it’s easy for him to be fired up when the Celtics are in a commanding position (i.e. 10 points up in today’s first quarter) or when the game is in the balance. But when his team is down and the Hawks momentum is up, KG goes into his shell a little. Today he settled for far too many outside jump shots, and his 7 rebounds were hardly what you’d expect from the Defensive Player of the Year in a close-out game. KG has been knocked for not being a winner and a leader during his time in Minnesota. Those sentiments have been drowned out by Boston’s tremendous success this year, but none of that really counts. It’s hard to ignore that when it’s really mattered, he hasn’t been able to step up and fight. Today Pierce fouled out with a couple of minutes left. At the time I knew it was over, and I said to my friend “their best closer is out… they’re screwed”. If KG didn’t have a history of disappearing in these moments I wouldn’t have said that. But he does. If he can’t finish the job against the rookie Al Horford and the Atlanta Hawks, how’s he supposed to have a chance against Sheed and the Pistons, Duncan and the Spurs or Gasol and the Lakers?
  • It’s becoming apparent the Celtics have an inability to guard athletic swing men on the perimeter. I think this has been masked throughout most of the season because of their terrific team defense, and even throughout this series that has been the case. Today they did a very good job of denying Joe Johnson the ball and crowding him – in my mind they were a little too Johnson-centric in this game.. he was commanding as much respect from the Celtics defense today as Kobe would. But when JJ did catch the ball in a 1-on-1 situation the Celtics were hopeless. I’m sorry, but Ray Allen is hopeless defensively. The only shooting guards in this league he could hope to defend are Brent Barry and Gordon Giricek, and even then he’d probably struggle with Barry’s “quickness”. Posey is supposed to be their go-to defender but I’m not convinced he is as good as he used to be, kinda like how Tayshaun Prince was supposed to be Detroit’s go-to defender against Lebron last year except Lebron turned him in to a little girl. If the Celtics get as far as the Finals and have to face Kobe or Ginobili they will be seriously exposed.
  • My fourth point may be the most important. What is wrong with the Celtics? The answer might be… nothing. Chauncey Billups said something interesting the other day when asked to explain Detroit’s slow start in the Philly series. He said that because Flip Saunders rested the starters so much at the end of the regular season it took a while for everyone to get their groove back. The exact same thing is probably happening with the Celtics. Remember, they had a very meaningless last two weeks of the season. Their #1 seed was wrapped up and so was home-court advantage through the playoffs/finals. They’ve been good at home, but the reason for their lack of focus on the road could be due to their late season hangover. Detroit took four and a half games to wake up properly – maybe the Celtics just need another one or two?
  • I don’t mean to rag on Rajon Rondo for one play, but in the final seconds of today’s game he had a total brain fart. With 8 seconds remaining after Bibby’s free throw put the Hawks up by three, Rondo dribbled the ball up the court (the Celtics had no timeouts) and screwed around a meter behind the three point line before jacking up a completely off-balance three. Earth to Rajon: did you forget about your team’s best shooter and second-best three shooter of all time Ray Allen? Did you forget about James Posey who hit a huge three just seconds earlier and has made a habit of nailing big threes in the playoffs? Did you forget that this season you shot 26% from three-point range – YES 26% – and you’ve made only one three in the last month?! (I looked it up). Just horrible decision making, and I’ve said several times over the season that the Celtics undoing in the playoffs might come down to the youth and inexperience of their supporting cast. Today I saw it with my own eyes.

Like I said, the Celtics will probably win game 7 and win it convincingly. But even so, they have completely lost the aura of invincibility they worked so hard for 82 games to achieve. As a Detroit fan I feared meeting the Celtics in the post-season. I don’t any more, neither will the Pistons, neither will Lebron and the Cavs, and neither will the Atlanta Hawks who have one more chance to prove it.

Day 13’s Playoff MVP Votes:
3 votes – Rip Hamilton (hit his first five shots)
2 votes – Chauncey Billups
1 vote – Tayshaun Prince (shot 65% through the entire series)

Day 14’s Playoff MVP Votes:
3 votes – Lebron James (26-13-13 to finish off the Wiz and end their talking)
2 votes – Joe Johnson (man-crush votes)
1 vote – Deron Williams (25-9-6 to finish off the Rockets. Honorable mention to T-Mac for his 40-10-5, but Tracy, your team still lost by 22 points and you still didn’t get out of the first round)

Playoff MVP Leader Board:
Lebron James – 9 votes
Chris Paul – 8 votes
Tony Parker – 7 votes
Kobe Bryant – 6 votes
Dwight Howard – 5 votes
Joe Johnson – 5 votes

Comment posted by
at 5/3/2008 11:56:29 PM

Ray-hater!


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