THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

How did we get here?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / May 1, 2008

It has been replayed again and again. It might be the best "Saturday Night Live" skit of them all. Jon Lovitz, playing Mike Dukakis, debates Dana Carvey, playing George Bush. Listening to a particularly hideous Bush ramble, Lovitz looks into the camera and says, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy!"

That's how this Celtics-Hawks playoff series feels to me. I can't believe the Celtics ever lost to these guys. I can't believe the Hawks knotted the series in Atlanta. I can't believe the Celtics went into last night's game facing a "must-win." I can't believe they put any doubts in our minds. I can't believe the series isn't over yet.

The Celtics beat the Hawks, 110-85, at the Garden last night. Boston returned to Bill Belichick Cover Five defense, got serious help from its bench, and dismissed the Hawks in appropriate fashion.

Unfortunately, it's not over yet. Your team will be leaving on a midday plane to Georgia and looking to win again tomorrow night to advance to the second round of the playoffs. It should be easy. But that's what we thought about Games 3 and 4.

"We're going to have to go in there and play like we did tonight," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We have to do it again. We have to do it on the road."

It should never have gotten this far. Ultimately, this series amounts to painful elaboration of the obvious. The Hawks should never have won twice at Philips Arena and have no business taking the series to six or (gulp) seven games. The Celtics know this. They can't say it, but they know it.

The Hawks were 37-45 this season. They finished 29 games behind the Celtics. They finished 19th in a 30-team league. Counting the playoffs, they are 12-32 on the road. I repeat - 12-32. And we are supposed to think they would have a chance to win here Sunday in a Game 7?

Celtics fans enjoyed their Garden party last night, but in truth, it's a little pathetic the Hub has to get all hysterical about beating the Hawks. It's like Yale putting out a press release when it gets named one of America's top 50 colleges by US News & World Report. Or Alex Rodriguez cracking open champagne when he's named to the American League All-Star team.

There were no menacing gestures in Game 5. No head-butts. No Larry-Dominique shootouts. No Tree Rollins biting Danny Ainge.

As often happens in a seven-game set, talent and athleticism were junked in the name of psychology and karma. The highly favored Celtics somehow morphed into nervous underachievers during their two losses at Philips Arena. Back home in New England, this gave way to regional anxiety not seen since the days the Red Sox were battling 86 years of bad luck.

The Celtics woke up yesterday to the prospect of abject failure and the possibility they would go down as the biggest chokers in Hub history. It could not have been fun.

Rivers spoke of his sudden status as resident dunce, but admitted, "A lot of people are watching. I love the passion here. People care and they are compelled to tell me. That's what it's like when you play here or coach in Boston."

Meanwhile, Celtics captain Paul Pierce was compelled to issue an explanation for his Game 3 gesture, which was interpreted by the league as "menacing" (resulting in a $25,000 fine for Pierce).

"I 100 percent do not in any way promote gang violence or anything close to it," said Pierce. "I am sorry if it was misinterpreted that way at Saturday's game."

Certainly this was a first. Satch Sanders and John Havlicek never released such a statement before a playoff game.

Pierce responded with 22 points and seven rebounds in the rout.

Boston led, 27-19, after one and we were reminded that the Hawks don't have enough offensive weaponry to stay with the Green Team. The Celtics are capable of playing great defense - this is what they did all season - and there is simply no way the Hawks should be able to contend with only 2 1/2 scoring threats in their lineup. Atlanta shot 40 percent for the night.

Garnett spoke of his team's "level of intensity," adding, "We've got to carry the same intensity on the road."

Much was made of Boston's weak bench contribution in Game 4, but this was not a problem last night as Leon Powe (seven first-half rebounds) took control early in the second quarter and Tony Allen (DNP in Game 4) had a chance to guard Joe Johnson for a few minutes. Sam Cassell shook off the cobwebs and gave Rivers 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting.

It was 58-43 at halftime and 81-64 after three. To their credit, the Hawks did not quit, but this game was never in doubt. Never. And though it may sound arrogant, this is the way it should be.

"We really have to lock in and understand what we did tonight," Garnett said.

Just as important, they have to remember what they didn't do in Games 3 and 4.

The series ends tomorrow night. And I still can't believe the Celtics ever lost to these guys.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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