Don't dismiss the Hawks' chances
BOSTON -- The Atlanta Hawks are building toward the biggest upset the NBA has ever seen. We know it would be the biggest upset because most people still can't see it coming.
There remains a stubborn feeling, in spite of the gains made and the advantages earned by Atlanta under the pressure of elimination on its home floor, that the top-seeded Celtics cannot lose Game 7 at home Sunday to the league's worst playoff team. The 37-45 Hawks were viewed so unworthy that many have argued for a revision of the entire postseason structure in order to keep a loser like them from qualifying in the future.
The truth is that the Celtics can lose Game 7. On Wednesday in Boston they broke open Game 5 in the final minutes to win 110-85, but that was not an easy win for the Celtics. They were up six midway through the third quarter, and the Hawks forced them to grind and work hard for every advantage.
The Celtics are in this predicament for the very same reasons that no team like them has ever won an NBA championship.
As has been pointed out in this space since preseason, no team like these Celtics has ever won the championship with its three leading scorers all aged 30 or older. It's no coincidence that the Celtics have looked stiff, old and unable to cope with the lively athleticism of the Hawks during the three games in Atlanta. Boston has been unable to come up with defensive stops or keep the aggressive Hawks off the free throw line.
In addition, no contender ever won a title in the same season of a roster overhaul as the Celtics underwent last summer. Boston is trying to become the first champion since the expansion Minneapolis Lakers in 1948-49 to win with two newcomers among its three leading scorers. Is that why they've looked so uncertain down the stretch of their losses in Atlanta?
One theory will be that the Celtics have focused so much on balancing the production of their big three that neither Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce nor Ray Allen has been able to elevate his game in the playoffs. None of them has played bigger than Joe Johnson, who has emerged as the star of this series.
It's also fair to point out that Garnett, Pierce and Allen have never led a team to an NBA Finals. Their play during the regular season created expectations that they've been unable to meet -- and in fact have never met in their careers -- during postseason. Pierce appears to have been affected by the $25,000 fine assessed for the "menacing gesture" he displayed earlier in the series, and the technical foul he earned after fouling out with 4:44 remaining in Atlanta's 103-100 win in Game 6 was a crucial mistake that one would have expected from the young Hawks rather than the elder Celtics.
The dynamic of the Eastern conference has changed entirely. A week ago the Celtics looked secure after winning both opening games at home, while the second-seeded Pistons were vulnerable while trailing 2-1 to the young 76ers. But since then Detroit has played with the self-assurance and maturity that the Celtics have been unable to establish.
With an overall 12-32 road record this season, the Hawks are far and away the worst visiting team in these playoffs. But they've already reversed one trend by winning all three games in Atlanta against the league's best road team. Who's to say they won't shoot an outrageous percentage from the three-point line Sunday?
Let's assume (as foolhardy as that may be) that the Celtics will exert themselves to win Game 7. Doesn't their feebleness in Atlanta disqualify them as title contenders for the remainder of the playoffs?
Not necessarily. Over the last 12 years only one champion has been stretched to a winner-take-all game in the opening round. But that team was the 1999-2000 Lakers, who as a group -- much like these Celtics -- were seeking their first championship after dominating the regular season. They were humbled in the opening round by the young Sacramento Kings before winning Game 5 decisively (in those days the opening round was best-of-five), demonstrating that they faced a steep postseason learning curve. In the ensuing conference finals, those Lakers would overcome a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter against the Trail Blazers.
What has become obvious is that the Celtics aren't an elite postseason team. They're merely one of several contenders, and they'll have to scrap and fight to prove themselves -- if they earn that right by winning Game 7.