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Dan Shaughnessy

Having a sixth sense

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / May 2, 2008

It is Game 6. The Celtics lead their first-round playoff series, three games to two. And yet tonight's hoop joust with the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena amounts to a proverbial must-win game for the Green Team.

The logic is simple. The Celtics won 66 games this season. They expect to advance to the NBA Finals. They hope to win a 17th championship banner, the franchise's first since those golden days of 1986. But they might not get to where they want to go if they don't beat the Hawks in Atlanta. They need to close this out tonight. They need to make a statement and put a lid on doubts that have surfaced since they dropped two in Georgia.

The Celtics are going to win this series. Sooner or later, they will eliminate the Hawks. Atlanta is 12-32 on the road this season and has zero chance to win a seventh game in Boston Sunday.

But think about it: If the Celtics lose tonight, then come home and win Game 7, will you feel good about them? Will Celtics management hand out "Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Champs" T-shirts and hats if the Green stagger to a seventh-game win over the 19th-best team in the league?

No. That's why they need to stop the madness. Tonight.

If the Celtics fail to win in Atlanta - if they have to slump home and take this thing in a seventh game on the parquet floor - then we stop thinking of them as championship-driven. And the doubt creeps into their own minds.

Tonight's game is the Celtics' punishment for not taking care of business in Atlanta. They had their foot on the throats of the Hawks, but failed to finish the job. They allowed the Hawks to think they have a chance. At the same time, they gave birth to a legion of new critics.

Now it is fashionable to say the Celtics look old. They lack athleticism. They lack direction. Their stars have failed to take their games to a higher level.

The Celtics certainly have the weaponry to win it all. They won 66 games. They swept through Texas. They dominated the Western Conference. They won when they had their stars on the shelf. They played more aggressive defense than any team in the league. Danny Ainge assembled a deep bench. The Celtics demonstrated the old-timey chemistry and selflessness that was so much a part of the Bill Russell teams of the 1960s.

But they forfeited their status as front-runners when they failed to close the deal in Atlanta. They gave the 37-win Hawks confidence. They made themselves vulnerable.

"We're more confident [at home], definitely more confident," Atlanta forward Josh Smith said Wednesday. "We just got to go out there knowing we can beat this team."

The Hawks were emboldened by their home-court success and will carry that faux confidence into the arena tonight. They are too young and naive to know they are supposed to roll over for the Boston goliaths.

It's always a mistake to read too much into an early playoff series. The vaunted Detroit Pistons struggled mightily with the lowly Philadelphia 76ers. Hopefully, the Celtics still have three more rounds and six more weeks of postseason play. A wake-up call can be helpful sometimes, but nothing good comes of this first-round series if the Celtics lose again tonight.

Ainge might remember another Celtics team that was a little like this one. The 1987-88 Celtics were an aging team of superstars. They were ultimately eliminated by the Detroit Pistons in six games in the conference finals. It was the end of the championship run of the original Big Three.

Now we have the New Three and a championship-caliber team that has yet to win a playoff series or a road playoff game. Theoretically, these Celtics can win the title without winning a road game, but we know that's not realistic. They need to regain the mojo that marked their sensational regular season. They need to finish the job tonight in Atlanta.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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