So how did this happen? The Celtics won 66 games in 2007-08. We saw a pre-playoff photo of Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant on the cover of Sports Illustrated - a tease for a return to the golden days of Celtics-Lakers in the NBA Finals. Round 1 of the NBA playoffs was supposed to be a layup drill for the C's. The Hawks were a sub-.500 team this year, consensus nominees as the worst of the 16 playoff teams.
And tonight the series returns to the Garden knotted at 2-2, with the Celtics bringing a two-game losing streak back from Philips Arena.
Suddenly, there are questions about the Green team that beat up on the NBA all year long. The Celtics were outhustled and outrebounded in Game 4. There were moments when they looked old. Ray Allen couldn't guard Joe Johnson. Paul Pierce couldn't finish a crunch-time drive. Kevin Garnett couldn't take his game to a higher level, opening himself to old criticism that he morphs into A-Rod in the playoffs. Doc Rivers made fans wish Isiah Thomas were coaching the Celtics (OK, that one's an exaggeration).
There was something else awry. The Celtics at times lost their composure. Garnett got into a jam with Zaza (don't call me Gabor) Pachulia and seemed stunned when the Hawk backup did not back down. For a minute, Zaza looked like he was going to go all Carl Everett on KG, but Pachulia settled for a head nuzzle instead of a head butt and peace was soon restored.
All this came just a few hours after captain Paul Pierce was slapped with a $25,000 fine for what the league deemed a "menacing gesture" toward the Atlanta bench in the final minutes of Boston's Game 3 loss. It would be impossible for any human to have less understanding of gang signs than yours truly (my experience is confined to a viewing of "Colors" at the West Newton Cinema in 1988), but Pierce had to know his gesture would be inflammatory.
Given the heat of the moment and the direction in which it was aimed, it strains all credibility to claim the gesture was no different from Pierce's "blood, sweat, and tears" low-five salute during pregame introductions.
The Celtics' in-house TV gang predictably minimized the moment, but the league obviously took it seriously, and given Pierce's near-death experience at a Boston nightclub in 2000, the captain's "menacing gesture" falls someplace between immature and reckless.
Yesterday, the Celtics fretted about potential Game 5 suspensions because during the Game 4 fracas Kendrick Perkins briefly left the bench and Garnett made contact with referee Ed Rush. Just before dinnertime, Boston management got word that there would be no suspensions, but Rivers acknowledged, "We, as a team, have to stop putting the league in this position. That's on us, not on the league."
Precisely. The Celtics are supposed to be the savvy vets here. They are not supposed to be bothered by the upstart Hawks. They can't let Atlanta's high-flying kids get into their heads. They need to stay cool, play the game, and act professionally. This is a No. 1 seed vs. a No. 8 seed. We can't have the Celtics losing their composure.
"We're fine, we just have to play better," Rivers said. "But I don't want us to think you can just show up and just play."
"We can't be too arrogant to think a team is just going to lay down for you," said Allen. "We're in a good situation now. This is what we've always dreamed about growing up. And we've learned a lot about ourselves in this series."
"I saw a lot of positive things despite the fact that we lost," added Pierce. "We got good looks that we'd take again.
"We took one on the chin, but I think we'll play better. I expect us to play with a higher sense of urgency."
Enough. The Hawks had their fun. It's time for the Celtics to get back to business and reassert themselves in this series. It's time for the Celtics to take back the night and dominate this team of 37 wins and two scoring threats. It's time for the Celtics to stop the nonsense and play like the team that won 66 games, the team that can make it to the NBA Finals.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.