The final game of the Celtics' regular season quickly turned into a high-scoring free-for-all. And with Boston approaching the 100-point plateau late in the third quarter last night, Paul Pierce became momentarily confused. He lost track of time, believing the game was actually winding down. Fitting for the conclusion of a season Pierce called a "roller coaster."
When coach John Carroll was asked about the toughest times, he joked that the 2003-04 season seemed more like 100 games than 82. The Celtics certainly experienced enough drama to fill more than 100 games, among awkwardly timed trades, the resignation of coach Jim O'Brien, and the termination of Vin Baker. Through it all, the Celtics discovered a lot about themselves.
"There's a measuring stick [for a successful season] and the measuring stick is who is still playing this weekend," said Carroll. "I don't have any delusions of grandeur that we are anything higher than an eighth-seed team. That's all that we've earned. There's a lot of teams this year that have had a lot of problems, whether it's Philadelphia or Cleveland at times or New Orleans right now. And we were able to overcome some of our problems to be able to at least represent ourselves [in the playoffs] over the next week or two. I just like that better than the alternative. The alternative means you kind of gave up and you gave in.
"We're not good enough to win every night. I'm not telling you anything you don't know. But we take the Lakers to a 3- or 4-point game with Kobe [Bryant] playing in the game. We beat New York at New York. We beat Minnesota at Minnesota. We took San Antonio to late in the third quarter, made them work to get a win. We're not good enough to beat those teams on a night in and night out basis. But I think our guys have worked hard. They've played hard. And they've tried, tried to play the game on a lot of nights the way it's supposed to be played."
Although the Celtics recorded a season high in points by defeating the Hawks, 137-132, last night at the FleetCenter, it was not exactly how Carroll hopes the game is played when the first round starts at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Saturday. Boston snapped a five-game losing streak and entered the playoffs on a positive note.
Although the Celtics' defense allowed the Hawks to take a 71-67 halftime lead, strong individual offensive performances from the home team should build confidence for the first round.
The Celtics placed five players in double figures, including three with more than 20 points. The Hawks had eight players in double figures. With Pierce sidelined for a second straight game with a sprained right ankle, rookie Marcus Banks led all scorers with 28 points. Mark Blount finished 27 points and 12 rebounds. And Jiri Welsch recorded his first career double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds.
"It means a lot to be going to the playoffs," said Banks. "There's a lot of guys that never made the playoffs their whole career. I'm thankful to be in this situation, even though we're going through some things right now . . . It's a confidence booster [to get a career high]. I'm glad I got the playing time and the opportunity."
Acquiring Banks in a draft-night deal with Memphis was technically the first trade Danny Ainge made as executive director of basketball operations. But planning to satisfy Ainge's vision really went into effect when he dealt Antoine Walker to Dallas Oct. 20. It was a sign that Boston was entering a serious rebuilding period. The Walker trade, coupled with the deals that followed, left Boston with only three players from the team that reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2002, Pierce, Walter McCarty, and Mark Blount.
The second significant transaction came when Boston sent Eric Williams, Tony Battie, and Kedrick Brown to Cleveland Dec. 15 for Ricky Davis, Chris Mihm, and Michael Stewart. With Williams joining the Cavaliers, the Celtics lost the strongest voice in the locker room and a key defensive leader. It was a move that did not go over well with O'Brien.
In his last move, Ainge acquired veteran point guard Chucky Atkins Feb. 19. According to Carroll, the arrival of Atkins coincided with the lowest point of the season. At the time, Boston was in the midst of a seven-game skid, its longest of the season. The slide also included the infamous game at Portland, where the Trail Blazers opened with a 22-0 run.
"We had a bunch of young guys running around for a couple games," said Carroll. "That was a hard point. I'm extremely proud of how Paul, Walter, and Mark, three guys who have been to the playoffs the last couple years, were able to help regroup this team."
For all the Celtics' inconsistencies, they played hardest when it mattered most -- in March. For all intents and purposes, Boston earned a spot in the postseason by finishing the month with a 9-5 record.
The Celtics showed they are capable of beating good teams on the road when they stretched a season-high winning streak to six games with victories in Minnesota and New York. They also have home victories over the Mavericks and Kings to their credit. The Celtics are also capable of losing to mediocre teams on the road and at home. Recent losses at Washington and Atlanta are examples.
It remains to be seen which Boston team will show up in Indiana.