ATLANTA - You kept expecting the big surge, the push that reestablished which was the team that won 66 games in the regular season and which was the one that won 37. It never came.
Before this series started, you could conceive of the Hawks taking a game, particularly here, particularly if someone like Joe Johnson (23 points) or Josh Smith (27) went off, which both happened to do last night in the Hawks' 102-93 victory. (Mike Bibby also reemerged from witness protection and Al Horford was a certifiable beast.)
But after the first two games, which the Celtics won comfortably and in which Atlanta looked hopelessly overmatched, it sort of seemed like this one was destined to go four games and the Hawks would go the way of all those other unqualified playoff qualifiers. Except we tend to forget that while the Hawks may be young and callow and clueless, the Celtics are going through this thing as a unit for the first time. And the playoffs are different.
This was not the Hawks team we saw in Boston. They were energized by an announced sellout (lots of Atlantans came dressed as empty seats) and there was an inspirational pregame video that referenced last year's Golden State upset over Dallas, Appalachian State's upset of Michigan, and even the United States' victory over the Soviet Union at Lake Placid.
"It was as electric as I've ever seen it since I've been here," offered Johnson, who is in his third year with the Hawks.
There were plenty of Green People as well, but as the night wore on, they didn't have much to cheer about. And if they were real Celtics fans, they had to be asking themselves, "Where was the team we saw in Boston?"
The Celtics outrebounded Atlanta in total over the first two games - and were battered on the glass last night. The Celtics held Atlanta to 38.2 percent shooting and an average of 79 points in Boston. Last night, the Hawks shot 47.4 percent and had 79 points before the end of the third quarter.
You can talk about the change in venue, but the Celtics have been a terrific road team all season, losing only once all season on the road by more than 10 points (and that was a meaningless early April game in Washington). They lost this one by 9, but it felt like double digits; they fell behind by 15 on two occasions in the fourth.
And they never could get back into it, despite a few excellent defensive sequences, because the all-for-one philosophy which served them well all year on offense was unexpectedly flushed down the toilet. In the second half, which is when the Hawks won the game, the Celtics shot 36 percent and had eight assists.
"We took a lot of quick, contested shots, and that is not who we are," Doc Rivers said. "We haven't done that. I thought each guy wanted to win it by himself. It's OK if each guy wants to win it by himself, but we have to do it as a group. We didn't do that."
The Celtics have shown they can be vulnerable to a team with athleticism, of which Atlanta has plenty. And when the athleticism is combined with reasonably intelligent play, it can pose problems. It sure did last night.
The Celtics were a step behind most of the night, whether it was getting beat inside (early, a slew of dunks and layups), or on the glass, or for loose balls. Atlanta played with a sense of justifiable desperation and, afterward, coach Mike Woodson talked as though the team had won a championship instead of a playoff game.
"For this to happen to the city of Atlanta and the fans of Atlanta is unbelievable," Woodson said.
Mostly, the Hawks simply played better and the playoffs are all about adjustments and change. They went into this game thinking they had a chance if they continued to play decent defense (which they did in Boston) and broke out of their offensive slump. They did. A team that made no 3-pointers in Game 2 (and took only five) was 10 of 18 from international waters. Bibby, paralyzed in the first two games, had more assists in the first 4:47 of the game (three) than he did in 62 minutes of mostly underwater play in Boston. Horford (17 points, 14 rebounds) also made his presence felt.
The Celtics aren't about to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Asked about the pace, Rivers said, "We don't mind the pace. We'd just like to join it. They beat us down the floor."
Rivers continued, "I reminded the guys that we're new to this thing, that we haven't won anything. We have not won a playoff game on the road. We have to be who we are. It's a lot of little things, all fixable."
Nor should they. They're still in control of this series. They had an off night in a hostile atmosphere in the playoffs in a game the other guy absolutely, positively, had to have. Bill Russell's teams had 'em. John Havlicek's teams had 'em. Larry Bird's teams had 'em. The real key is how this team responds. Judging by the looks on their faces after this one, I'd venture to say they'll be ready.
Peter May can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.