BOSTON - Rarely, if ever, has a team looked so positively vulnerable, yet so downright infallible.
Call it the Celtic Paradox.
On the verge of the one of the great choke jobs in sports history, the Boston Celtics instead strangled the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, 99-65, in an otherwise needless Game 7 of an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. The Celtics held the Hawks to 26 points in the first half, playing with such conviction that any thought of a consummating Atlanta upset disappeared right along with vanishing Hawks point guard Mike Bibby.
So once again, the Celtics are the team to beat in the East.
“You know, the regular season — it comes and goes,'' said Celtics captain Paul Pierce, who scored a game-high 22 points. "You have your small tests throughout the course of the regular season, but there is nothing like the playoffs. There is nothing you can do in the regular season to prepare you for the playoffs, (a) seven-game game series. (This was the) first time (for) us being together as a group in the playoffs, so I think, as a team, what we learned is the intensity, the focus, and the concentration you've got to have, especially on the road.
“I think it is easy for us at home. You've got the crowd behind you, you got energy, everything that is working for you,'' Pierce added. "But on the road, we definitely learned something on how we've got to approach games. It was really good for this series to end up the way it ended up and I am real happy with the results.''
But then, that's the beauty of the playoffs.
All that really matters is the bottom line.
Or does it?
Questions, questions, questions. From the start, these Celtics were surrounded by them. A year ago at this time, after finishing the 2006-07 season with the second-worst record in the league, the Celtics were preparing for the NBA Draft Lottery. The ping-pong balls came up snake eyes and the Celtics ended up with the fifth pick in the draft, and thoughts of Greg Oden or Kevin Durant clanged off the rim like a cinder block.
At the nadir of their existence, many teams would have changed coaches.
The Celtics opted to change rosters.
Less than two months after the latest Boston lottery disaster (see: "Duncan, Tim''), the Celtics had traded away No. 5 (the pick) for, well, No. 5 (Kevin Garnett), albeit via a circuitous route. No. 5 (the pick) went to Seattle for Ray Allen, whose arrival in Boston convinced No. 5 (The Big Ticket) to accept a trade to the Eastern Conference.
Just like that, the Celtics went from 24 wins to 66, the best record in the league and the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history. Head coach Doc Rivers went from a nitwit to a tactician.
The Hawks, who went 37-45 during the regular season, finished a mere 12-32 away from Philips Arena, including playoffs.
But the basketball world expected it from them.
"We learned a lot about ourselves through this. We learned what we're made of,'' Garnett said after Game 7. "I don't know what message the rest of the league takes (from it), but this is our home court and we're confident here. I don't know if there's a message there, but this is how we play.''
Most of the time.
The good news? No one will sneak up on this team anymore, beginning in Round 2, when the Celtics will meet the defending Eastern Conference champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the demigod known as LeBron James. Boston will have the home court advantage, which bodes well given the Atlanta series, and the Celtics have a clear advantage in depth. While James was the top scorer in the league this year, the Celtics — who did not have a player rank in the top 15 in scoring, rebounding or assists — were the best team.
Said guard Allen after the Boston victory: "The performance that we put out there (in Game 7) is very typical of what we have done all year, or who wanted to be.''
At other times, not so much.
And as for tomorrow, who knows?
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