CLEVELAND - So what happened to the Celtics you knew and loved this year? Do they have anything going for them other than the Boston Garden? Are the 2007-08 Celtics fated to melt down at home and watch their title dreams go down the drain?
We start to draw conclusions after 11 playoff games, and the conclusions are ugly.
In the wake of last night's fourth-quarter fold (12 points), which led to an 88-77 loss and a 2-2 series draw with the Cavaliers, it's hard to see the Celtics as anything other than front-runners. Nobody looks better when they have it going. But when the going gets tough on the road, the Celtics collapse.
It looked like they might finally win a road playoff game last night. Boston trailed by a mere 3 points after three. But the New Three vanished in crunch time. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen swallowed fourth-quarter doughnuts and Paul Pierce forced a bunch of shots while scoring 6 of the paltry dozen.
"We have to play better under stress, there's no doubt about it," acknowledged coach Doc Rivers, who went with a curious quintet of Glen Davis, James Posey, Sam Cassell, P.J. Brown, and Pierce for the first 4 1/2 minutes of the final quarter.
It was the latest chapter in an annoying postseason in which the Celtics suddenly can't win on the road. The NBA's best regular-season road team is 0-5 away from home in the 2008 playoffs. They resume tomorrow night at the Garden and, of course, they are expected to win. Then they must return to Cleveland Friday.
"We can play better at home, then break the road streak and get everybody to stop talking about it," said Pierce.
The talk will not stop until the Celtics win one away from home.
If you are a glass-half-full person, you can look at this and conclude that the Celtics can win the title simply by holding serve throughout the playoffs. Theoretically, Boston can go 16-0 at home and 0-12 on the road and raise banner No. 17.
But does any card-carrying Celtic fan feel good about this team? Going a combined 0-5 in Atlanta and Cleveland does little to inspire confidence. And a glass-half-empty person might say that, sooner or later, somebody is going to crash the Garden party and walk out of the Causeway Street gym with a win. You don't think the Pistons can do it? Or maybe, just maybe, the Cavaliers?
Remember that Cleveland beat Detroit four straight times after losing the first two in the conference finals last spring.
The Celtics trailed, 23-21, after one and 45-43 at intermission. Garnett (13 points, 8 rebounds) carried the Green in the first half and Allen got hot in the third period. But the Celtics showed an alarming lack of poise in the fourth.
"I just thought a couple of threes we took . . . we were searching for those instead of the continued ball movement that gets you good shots," said Rivers. "I call them 'hero shots' and I thought we took a lot of those instead of just stressing what we do."
And LeBron James (21 points, 13 assists, but struggling with his shot) was there to capitalize.
The game got away with three minutes left when Daniel Gibson drained a three, Allen missed a three, then James broke loose for a backboard-shaking dunk to make it 84-75 with 1:45 left. Exploiting a Joe Smith pick, LeBron blew past Pierce, Posey, and Garnett en route to the royal flush.
"I just wanted to be aggressive," said James. "I hadn't had a play like that the whole series. Once I turn the corner and I get my 1-2 down, there's not too many guys that can jump with me.
"That just capped it off for me to get up there and put an exclamation point on the game. That was a play that we needed as a team. We're looking forward to going to Boston and winning a game on the road."
NBA commissioner David Stern was on hand to watch the home team win again. Leaguewide, home teams are 15-1 in this round. How does the Commish feel about a league in which it seems the home team is guaranteed to win every playoff game?
"That's what people play [the regular season] for," said the ever-affable Stern. "In the Celtics' case, it certainly lifts their defense. That's the way it is until you come to expect it, and then it won't happen."
Which would be trouble for the Boston Celtics.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.