IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A GLORIFIED TUNE-UP, but by Game 7 Boston looked like the ones getting played. No one outside the ATL gave the Atlanta Hawks more than a puncher's chance against the Celtics in their first-round series, and then only if the blow KO'd Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen simultaneously. Boston was the NBA's marquee team entering the 2008 playoffs, owner of the best record in the league and boasting a star-studded lineup supplemented by a deep and experienced bench. Atlanta, meanwhile, sputtered into its first postseason in nine years with three straight losses and with only two players—shooting guard Joe Johnson and point guard Mike Bibby—who had any playoff experience on their r�sum�. The Hawks appeared to be a team just happy to be there.
In the first two games it didn't look as if they'd be there for long. The Celtics throttled Atlanta in the opener, with point guard Rajon Rondo dominating the only matchup that could have potentially swung heavily in the Hawks' favor. Playing in his first career playoff game, Rondo made Bibby (he of the 51 career playoff games) look like the neophyte. Rondo scored 15 points and chipped in nine assists and six rebounds in the Celtics' 104-81 win. In Game 2 Boston continued the pressure. The Celtics performed like a well-oiled machine, paced by newly crowned Defensive Player of the Year Garnett, who contributed 19 points and 10 rebounds in a 96-77 beating.
But something changed when the series shifted to Atlanta: Boston, the NBA's best road team in the regular season, forgot how to play in the green jerseys. In Game 3 Hawks forward Josh Smith—who had been humiliated by Garnett in the previous two games—poured in 27 points. It was Smith's three-pointer with 7:02 left in the fourth quarter that was the final dagger, as Atlanta claimed its first win with a 102-93 victory.
The Celtics' bad dream became a full-on nightmare in Game 4. Ahead by 10 points at the end of three quarters, Boston was battered by the Hawks 32-17 in the fourth and lost 97-92. Once again it was Smith (28 points, seven blocks) providing the energy, while former Celtic Joe Johnson haunted his old team, scoring 35 points to help Atlanta tie the series. "We've got to find our team identity, our team chemistry," said guard Sam Cassell. "We've got to find all that real quick."
A convincing 110-85 Boston win in Game 5 did nothing to quiet the critics. With a record crowd of 20,425 in Phillips Arena for Game 6, the Celtics once again found themselves in a struggle. For the third straight road game Boston was unable to put away Atlanta as Johnson, with eight fourth-quarter points, again sparked the Hawks to prevail, 103-100.
After the game a relaxed Doc Rivers answered a handful of questions, then walked away from the press conference podium with a smile on his face. He knew Boston, which had won the previous three home games against Atlanta by an average of 22.3 points, was still in the driver's seat. He was right: In Game 7 the Celtics dropped the hammer on the Hawks early, building a 44-26 halftime lead on the way to a 99-65 rout. There was a collective sigh of relief as fans filed out of the TD Banknorth Garden, but their confidence had been shaken, and a new, previously unthinkable, question began to form: After struggling mightily against the worst team in the playoffs, just how far could this Boston team go?