Celtics stumble at a bad time Print
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Monday, 28 April 2008 22:18
NBA Headline News

 David Stern was courtside in Atlanta, taking in the game and making sure no one was flashing any signs not officially approved by the NBA.
Stern did his job well because there wasn't a gangsta moment all night, unless you count the mugging Joe Johnson and the Hawks gave the Boston Celtics in the fourth quarter of a series that by all accounts was supposed to be over by now.
Depending on whose side you're on, the fact that it's not either says something about the unpredictability of a league where anything can happen or the silliness of having a team that couldn't come close to winning half its games in the regular season even being allowed into the playoffs against the team with the best record in the NBA.
Sure, the Celtics will likely prevail by the time it is all over, if only because home-court advantage means so much and two of the final three games will be played in Boston. The Hawks won only 12 games on the road during the regular season, so their chances of stealing one in the playoffs aren't all that good, even with the momentum on their side.
Still, the worst team in the playoffs is giving Boston fits, which outside of Atlanta is a huge buzz killer for a postseason that so far hasn't lived up to the lofty expectations that most everyone had coming in.
``Basketball is a strange thing,'' Boston's Sam Cassell said. ``Strange things happen.''
Strange things do happen, but usually the great teams find a way to overcome them. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers must have thought it was strange that the Denver Nuggets actually came to play after rolling over in the second half of their game a few nights earlier, but that didn't stop Los Angeles from completing an easy four-game sweep.
While the Celtics are struggling with a team that wouldn't have sniffed the playoffs had it been in the West, the Lakers dominated a team that won 50 games in the regular season and had a pair of superstars in Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. In doing so, they put to rest the theory that any playoff team in the Western Conference could beat any other team.
That's largely because the Lakers have Bryant, who will likely finally win the MVP award this year that has always somehow eluded him. Bryant finally has a big man to complete him once again, but it was he, not Pau Gasol, who took over at the end of the game to make sure the Nuggets didn't steal one.
``He just exploded at the end of the game,'' Anthony said. ``It's something he always does.''
Bryant and the Lakers looked just like what they were supposed to be - the No. 1 team in the conference and the favorite to still be standing when the playoffs mercifully end many weeks from now. They took care of business with cool efficiency, and will now be able to go home and spend some time resting up for either Utah or Houston.
The Celtics won't have that luxury. They have at least two more games against the lowly Hawks, games they should never have had to play, and have accomplished nothing so far other than to make a long season even longer.
They may still emerge from the East to play in the finals, but it no longer seems the certainty it did after the Celtics finished the regular season with a league leading 66 wins. While Bryant can carry his team seemingly whenever needed, Kevin Garnett made it past the first round of the playoffs only once in eight attempts with Minnesota.
Garnett, of course, never had the supporting cast he now has with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, but teams of destiny don't lose one first round game to the likes of the Hawks, much less two in a row.
``We've got to find us real quick,'' Cassell said. ``We've got to find our team identity, our team chemistry, we've got to find all that real quick.''
Boston coach Doc Rivers didn't seem all that worried about his team's ability to recover its swagger. Someone noted that the Red Sox had lost five in a row and wondered what Rivers would tell people who might be thinking of jumping off a bridge in despair over the twin losing streaks.
``Don't jump,'' Rivers said, chuckling.
Good advice, because the Celtics will be back home Wednesday night and should again look like the team that won the first two games of the series by an average of 21 points. They're so talented that Vegas oddsmakers had them a nine-point favorite on the road against Atlanta, and a blowout wouldn't be surprising.
The Celtics are still likely to run the table and hold up their part of the bargain for the dream matchup in the finals against the Lakers that would send television ratings through the roof. Their ill-timed stumble aside, they're still by far the best team in the East.
But so far they're making it a lot harder on themselves than they should.
---
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org.
 

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