The Boston Celtics begin their 2012 playoff push tonight in Atlanta against the Hawks. Boston's chances in the playoffs, once a laughable slim-to-none, have improved markedly in the last few weeks. Injuries to key players on opposing teams, the emergence of players thought to be towel waivers, and a resurgence of some of the team's older core have vaulted the Celtics in to contender consideration.
In Game 1 of their series against the Philadelphia 76ers yesterday, the Chicago Bulls suffered a significant blow to their title hopes when they lost the reigning MVP, Derrick Rose, for the remainder of the playoffs with a torn ACL. The Orlando Magic have already lost Dwight Howard for the season. That leaves an unproven Indiana Pacers team, the recently inconsistent Miami Heat, the Rose-less Bulls, and the Atlanta Hawks as potential road blocks to third Finals appearance for the new Big Three-era Celtics.
On the surface this should be good news to Celtics fans. Injuries are certainly unfortunate for the player, and on some level, the league. Celtics fans are more than familiar with the affect an injury to a top player can have on a potential championship bid (See Garnett, 2009). Nobody shed a tear for KG or Celtics fans in 2009. Like in 2009, the Eastern Conference playoffs have just become a little more of an open race. The Heat are decided favorites, no doubt, but it seems like they haven't improved any from last season. Some would say they are playing worse (30-point drubbing of the Knicks notwithstanding). With all of these factors seemingly turning things in the Celtics favor, the ability for Boston to sneak up on teams will disappear. And with heightened expectations, comes heightened anxiety for Celtics fans.
If I had gotten around to this post earlier, I would have written about how I believe the Celtics should beat the Hawks, and anything after that would be gravy. Should the Celtics make it to the second round I would have sat back on the couch and relaxed. Beaming at wins and shrugging off losses while taking the time to appreciate the best group of players I've watched (I was 3 in '86) as a Celtics fan finish their run in the playoffs. The basketball gods would not have this, apparently. If the Celtics beat the Hawks and the Bulls beat the 76ers, Boston would likely be favored against Chicago without Rose. Celtics fans would once again have to live and die on every shot. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Round 1 Prediction:
I believe this series will be more difficult than others, apparently. Similar to their match-up in 2008, when every Celtics win was a blowout and every Hawks win was a close game, I think Boston will fail to close out some close games that will extend the series. Boston will succumb to a few Joe Johnson late game heart breakers before finally closing out Atlanta on the road in the seventh game.
If I was forced to predict the eventual fate for Boston I'd guess that they beat Chicago in seven in Round 2 and lose to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals in Game 7.