After Friday night’s Game 3, the Atlanta Hawks were down two games to one, but left the gym with more air in their balloon than when they entered. There are no moral victories in the playoffs, but the undermanned Hawks fought valiantly, believing they could trump the Celtics Game 2 upset with an even more remarkable one of their own. Instead, last night, they were delivered a beat down of epic proportions. A “statement” win if you believe in that sort of thing. As currently constructed, Boston consists of two devastating elements, and when both are simultaneously at their peak, the team might be basketball’s best. In the team’s most recent performance we saw them both make noticeable contributions from the start, and the result was like the tactical dropping of a hydrogen bomb.
These two components I speak of are an engaged Rajon Rondo, and a team defense that could catch a bear. Should they both be motivated and swarming for 48 minutes, they’re two weapons no team left in the playoffs can provide a suitable answer for. When they play off one another, with ferocious help defense leading to a steal, and Rondo pushing the ball in transition, the situation is so far in Boston’s advantage that the opposition should seriously consider gifting him with a layup. When Rondo gets it going, everyone else has it going as well. The name of his game is involving others. With what must be a bird’s eye view of the court, cat-like reflexes, a presidential way of making well thought out, educated decisions, and an ability to distribute the basketball with a series of passes that confuse everyone in the gym except his intended recipient, Rondo is an especially dangerous player, and he showed it last night with seven first quarter assists and 13 by the half. (His one turnover in the game came when he pulled up for a jumper, spotted Ryan Hollins wide open under the basket, and chose to drop down a pass. Hollins, of course, wasn’t expecting it.) When he takes over games, everyone feels good, and everyone gets easy shots. At the time Brandon Bass made two free-throws to push Boston’s lead to 35 with six minutes left in the third quarter, the team was shooting 63.5% from the floor. A lot of that success can be attributed to Rondo, who finished the game with 16 assists, and 20 points on 11 shots in a game-high 34 minutes. Rondo was major, and while the team can thank him for making everything easier, he can thank the defense.
The Celtics’ defense was what controlled this game in the early going, setting the table for the blow out win. With 34 seconds left in the first quarter, Greg Stiemsma forced Atlanta’s eighth turnover on a bad pass by Tracy McGrady. The ball immediately went the other way for a Kevin Garnett jump hook that came with a little shove from Al Horford. Garnett made the free-throw. This sequence was a microcosm of the effort and impressiveness of the victory. Boston scored 18 points off 18 Hawk turnovers. As Doc Rivers chose once again to play 10 guys by halftime, the defense was unaffected, as if it were its own being, separate from personnel. Everybody attacked, everybody was aggressive, everybody was smart. They finished the game with 10 steals, six blocks, and an Atlanta Hawks team that shot 20% on 20 attempts from the three-point line.
Now, when you throw Rondo and team defense in a blender, what you get is a seriously formidable opponent. But when you sprinkle in an offensively aggressive Paul Pierce (6-7 in front of the three-point line and 4-6 behind it) what you have is a perfect storm. The Celtics are a great jump shooting team, but last night they tortured the Hawks with a barrage of shots at least 15-feet from the basket. They took 26 three-pointers and made 42% of them. When the shot clock was winding down and it looked like a possession just wasn’t meant to be, somehow the Celtics made another. All of Boston’s strengths flexed their muscles and it kind of gave the game a “too good to be true” feeling. In a contest that normally made up of runs and momentum, the Celtics held it all for 48 minutes. Their biggest lead was 37 points. That just isn’t normal.
When Pierce fell to the ground in the second quarter, holding his knee and in obvious pain, my first reaction was nausea, but an expected nausea. After watching these playoffs, I’d become numb to the devastating injury. But when he returned in the second half to knock down two more three-pointers in just about three minutes of action, I realized something. Whoever wins the championship this year probably won’t be the most talented team. It won’t be who’s playing the best basketball right now or who swept through the first round without breaking a sweat. This year’s champion will have severe mental toughness. They’ll be a group of guys who’ve battled injury and unprecedented obstacles. A team that’s grown, adapted, and stormed their way through the darkness of this lockout abbreviated season, rising from the other side with heads held high.
Right now the Celtics find themselves one game away from possible home court advantage in the second round. What awaits them after that is probably a re-match with Miami. After watching this team play the way they did last night, neither challenge should be seen as one the Boston Celtics have not already overcome.