THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Normally, Game 7 is the ultimate

This isn't one we look forward to

Rajon Rondo was looking around for answers Friday. Rajon Rondo was looking around for answers Friday. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / May 4, 2008

Game 7. The ultimate sports event. The top of the mountain. The pinnacle.

Game 7 reminds us of Russell-Chamberlain, Bird-Magic, Bruins-Habs, Lonborg-Gibson, Grady Little's brain-lock, and Johnny Damon's grand slam in the 2004 ALCS.

Game 7 is when fans start cheering halfway through the national anthem and drown out everything after "the rockets' red glare."

It is the best game in sports. It is the thing that brings us to the games in the first place.

But not today. Today is a Game 7 embarrassment. It is a Game 7 that was never supposed to happen.

The Celtics and their fans just want to take their victory today, move on to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and pretend none of this ever happened.

The Hawks are a 12-32 road team. They have lost three playoff games in Boston by an average of 22.3 points. They were the 19th-best team in the NBA this year, finishing 29 games behind the league-leading Celtics. They are an 8 seed playing a 1 seed and yet they are within one victory of sending the Celtics home for the summer. The Celtics have magically transformed the Hawks into America's team.

Your 2007-08 Celtics started their season 29-3. Now here they are in the playoffs and they are 3-3 against a sub-.500 team. In a single series, the Hawks have done what it took the rest of the NBA 32 games to do - make Boston lose three times.

Perhaps this is why the volcanic Stephen A. Smith stated on ESPN that if the Celtics lose Game 7, it will be "the worst defeat in history, as far as I'm concerned. It is that colossal."

How'd you like to take the floor today with that hanging over your head? A chance to pull off "the worst defeat in history"?

The Celtics and their fans remain supremely confident about winning today, of course. When playing in Boston, the Hawks have been the 37-win Hawks of 2007-08. They have been easily dismissed. It should happen again.

But even if the Celtics win, the damage has been done. Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Antonio, and the rest of the still-breathing NBA teams have been emboldened by what they've seen of the Celtics in Atlanta. Remember Andy Reid and his Eagles and the famed "blueprint" for beating the Patriots? The Giants ultimately used the Philly game plan to stun the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

And now the book is out on the Green. They get rattled on the road. They lose their defensive aggressiveness. They stop attacking the basket and settle for jump shots. They bench Rajon Rondo and use Sam Cassell. Kevin Garnett doesn't look to take the big shot. Paul Pierce unravels like a 19-year-old rookie. Doc Rivers gets away from what brought him this far.

All of the above explains why this is the NBA's only first-round series to go the max. Every other higher seed took care of business (not counting Utah over Houston, which was a 4-5 wash). But the Celtics are still playing and the rest of the league sees Boston's vulnerability.

Today would be a good time for Pierce to start playing and behaving like the captain of the team. He disappeared again Friday (12 shots) before fouling out with 4:44 still left on the clock. The foul call was certainly dubious, but Pierce once again made things worse with knucklehead antics.

A few years ago, it was the curious bandage he wrapped around his head for a postgame interview. Last week, it was the gang gesture he flashed at the end of Game 3. Friday it was a technical foul for throwing his headband after picking up his sixth personal.

Pierce knows the rules. He knew that was an automatic "T." He did it anyway.

Rivers said, "I was disturbed by it because we should never get a fourth-quarter technical; that's been our rule all year."

Pierce broke the rule. And it mattered on every possession the rest of the game.

Pierce didn't stick around to talk about any of it and has told reporters that he is boycotting the media until after the series. There's more leadership on parade for you.

As for Garnett, I have only two words of warning: Alex Rodriguez.

So today we have Game 7. The Celtics will win. And maybe when they beat the Cavaliers and Pistons we'll look back at this series as nothing more than an annoying speed bump - a peach-tree wake-up call that will make the Green Team better in the long run.

But that's not how it feels right now. It feels like the Celtic supermen have been unmasked and exposed for all the NBA to see.

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

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