ATLANTA - OK, it is now time for Celtics fans to get annoyed.
They could cut the Celtics a lot of slack when they lost Game 3. They could cut them a little slack when they squandered a 10-point lead at the end of the third quarter and lost Game 4. But no more slack-cutting with these guys. Now, the Boston Celtics really have something to prove.
The Pistons did the job Thursday night. The Cavaliers and Jazz did the job last night. The Lakers did the job a long time ago. But the Celtics did not do the job. They did not take care of business in a championship manner. The team with the best regular-season road record in the NBA has now lost three straight in Atlanta, and tomorrow afternoon, at the Old Gardenish time of 1 p.m., they will play what must surely be the most unanticipated Game 7 in their 62-year history.
The odds are they will win it. The only Atlanta leads in the three games in Boston were 2-0, 7-5, 7-6, and 8-7. It's a different game in Boston. But it wasn't supposed to be this hard. There wasn't supposed to be a Game 7 in this series because if the Celtics really were the legitimate heirs to a throne, they would have ended this thing in Philips Arena last night. They would not have lost Game 6, 103-100, to the Atlanta Hawks.
And even if they win it, they will have soiled their résumé. They will enter a second-round series against the LeBrons without the comfort, satisfaction, and supreme feeling of accomplishment that come with winning a playoff game on the road. They will be reminded of this if/when they arrive in Cleveland for Game 3 and it will be way too big a deal. Just wait. You'll see. It will be an enormous issue and they will probably get annoyed at the story line, and that's too bad, because that is the price they will pay for creating unnecessary drama in a first-round series.
This was another messy game, and it was essentially lost in a 3-minute-8-second stretch in the fourth quarter when they were outscored, 10-0. James Posey had just hit a three to put them up, 89-86, when things got away. Sure, it began with a bad call (Al Horford did the quick-step long before he was sent to the line by Joey Crawford), but the Celtics had no legitimate beef since they had been the beneficiaries of many a dubious call as they were constructing a lead that would peak at 12 (32-20 and 34-22) and would be as much as 9 (67-58) in the third quarter.
But once it began, it got ug-lee, the low point being Paul Pierce's unseemly exit when he was called for a sixth foul on a Josh Childress move to the hoop. Pierce slammed his headband down, drawing a technical foul from Bob Delaney. That turned out to be a very big point, because there is a big difference between needing a two and needing a three when there is a chance to tie the game in crunch time.
Trailing by 7 (96-89), the Celtics did claw back into it. Ray Allen had a chance for a go-ahead three at 102-100 and Rajon Rondo actually had the game's last shot (a dreadful air-ball three). But it would have been an injustice had they managed to steal it. The Hawks deserved this game, just as they deserved the first two here.
The Celtics were looking good at the end of the first quarter. They had an intelligent mixture of inside stuff and outside shooting, emerging with the aforementioned 32-20 lead. But things turned sour when Doc Rivers went to his bench. Sam Cassell has become an issue. He looked great in Game 5 because his shots were falling, but the problem is that he keeps shooting, whether they're falling or not. He almost single-handedly broke the Boston momentum in the first six minutes of the second quarter, and the truth is the Celtics never really regained their proper offensive rhythm.
It always felt as if the Celtics were just hanging on. The lead was down to 1 at 50-49 by the half, and the Celtics were unable to discourage Atlanta in the third, even after going back up by 9 (67-58) and 8 (73-65). The Hawks just would not go away.
There is no way to overstate the lift Atlanta got from Zaza Pachulia and Childress off the bench. The former, a versatile 7-footer with inside and outside skills, had 7 of his 9 points in the second quarter, when the Hawks were slowly building confidence and establishing their legitimacy. The latter, a 6-8 son of Stanford, was magnificent, scoring 15 points, grabbing 8 rebounds, and handing out 3 assists. These two played so well it was hardly noticeable that, for nearly 47 minutes, the Hawks were getting next to nothing from Game 4 hero Joe Johnson.
Ah, but he was saving his one big dagger for the most opportune moment. There he was, pretty much stuck with the ball as the 24-second clock was ticking down, his team in shaky possession of a 97-95 lead, throwing in a well-guarded, right-wing 3-pointer with 1:07 left. It was, believe it or not, Atlanta's only three of the evening.
The 16 Celtics championship teams played 46 series, during which they won 55 road games. Not one of those 16 teams won a title without winning a road game. The 1965 champs won a single road game, but one is more than none. The '68 team won seven. The '66 and '74 teams each won six. The '69, '81, and '86 teams won five apiece.
A championship-caliber team is supposed to get this road business out of the way early. It might have to put up with a little resistance from the first-round foe, but then it is supposed to show them who is boss no later than Game 6. That is the way championship teams act.
Rivers has continually said that, 66 regular-season wins notwithstanding, these guys are unproven as a playoff unit and have yet to win anything.
Boy, was he right.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.