Well, it's a series now.
The Celts should have had all the motivation they needed coming in to Game 4 in Atlanta. Instead, it was the Hawks who played like they had a chip on their shoulder.
It sure didn't start out looking that way. The Celts brought the hammer down hard at the start of the game, taking early leads of 5-0, 8-2, and 16-3. This game was following the script of every other Celtics blowout of the past 85 games: lockdown defense, great ball movement, and wide-open outside shots.
And then the wheels came off.
It wasn't necessarily anything as egregious as the overall listless effort in Game 3. The Celtics' defense was light years better throughout Game 4, as was their ball movement. But three key things helped lead to their second loss in two games:
The C's ended the third quarter on an 8-0 run and seemed to be taking control of the game heading into the fourth with a 10-point lead. Same deal as the first-quarter run ... most people were probably thinking "Well, the Celts have taken over. They are not going to lose tonight." I know I did.
But the Hawks, to their credit, didn't.
They took the blow once again, and came back fighting, quickly clawing back into the lead and shifting the momentum heading into the last half of the quarter. The fact that the Hawks responded to every run the Celts threw at them with an even better run was surprising, and due in no small part to the fact that they haven't let the incredible record or talent in Green get into their heads. After withstanding the haymaker at the start of the game, and again at the end of the third, to come back and pretty quickly regain the lead, that was a huge statement and they seemed to have erased any lingering doubts of their ability to hang with the Celts in the series.
As for Joe Johnson ... what can you say? He got on one of those Paul Pierce-esque streaks at the end of the game, and carried the Hawks across the finish line.
I think it's time to burn my Kedrick Brown rookie card.
I'll be the first to admit the officiating in the game was pretty bad. The disparity between the amount of contact that was allowed on either end of the court was startling. But that's the NBA, you have to expect things like that. You can't let a lack of a call affect how you play the game. And it seems the Celts did that once the Hawks made their runs.
As for free-throw shooting, there's no excuse there. Pierce and Garnett were a combined 6 for 12, and they seemed to miss the front end of every opportunity. I hate to be the one who brings this back up, but it was Paul's free throw woes that hurt the C's in his past playoff appearances, and although that concern seems to have evaporated over the past few years, it must still linger there in the back of his brain, and you only hope that it doesn't come back to bite him like it did in the past.
3) The Celtics vets are the ones losing their cool, while the rookies looked like the composed ones: KG has gotten chippy with his after-the-fact elbows over the last few games, and, warranted or not, that's something he has to rein in, especially in the playoffs. If not, guys like ZaZa Pachulia continue to try and mix it up and hope KG does something stupid.
Sam Cassell should know better than to get into a shoving match with someone more than 10 years his junior.
Kendrick Perkins has been in the league long enough to know even putting a toe over the sideline during an on-court scuffle could result in serious penalty.
And although Pierce's alleged "threatening gesture" near the end of Game 3 seemed pretty innocuous, he has to know that any type of response to the Hawks showboating will only add fuel to Atlanta's fire, and only prove that this young Hawks team is getting into the Celtics' heads.
Meanwhile, guys like Rajon Rondo, Glen Davis, and Leon Powe continue to give all-out effort and perform at a high level without getting into, as Tommy likes to say, "extracurricular activities."
So what now? All bets are off. That's not to say that I would bet on the Hawks, I still think this is the Celtics' series to win, but it all comes down to Game 5. It's the first must-win of the season for the men in Green, because if the Hawks take that one, they could be favored in Game 6 for the first time in the series. We'll see if it's a challenge the Celtics can rise to. If they don't, the magical run could be at an end, way, way, too early.
I still don't think it'll happen. But I'm a lot more worried than I was 24 hours ago.