With the Celtics headed to another postseason meeting with the Hawks, Jeff suggested I post an excerpt from the Hawks-Celtics chapter of my book, which chronicles the 2008 title run in great detail, as a preview or taster for the 2012 series. The whole chapter would be too long, but I'm going to give you a couple of lengthy excerpts, one today and one tomorrow. We'll start by looking at how the series got underway...
Heading to the postseason, the Celtics' first opponent would be the Atlanta Hawks. Most people in the local and National media predicted a comfortable four-game sweep for the Celtics. On the face of it, with a 66-win team facing a 37-win team and having defeated them by double digits in each of their three meetings during the regular season, this seemed like a reasonable assumption.
However, while I did feel confident that they would win the series (although I still had my doubts over their chances in the next round, which was likely to be against Cleveland), I was fairly certain it wasn't going to be as straightforward as everyone expected.
First of all, since trading for Mike Bibby, the Hawks had essentially been a .500 team, so with Bibby on board they were obviously a better team than their record indicated. In fact, while it had taken Bibby some time to forge some chemistry with the young Hawks, towards the end of the season they had come on strong, with a streak of nine wins out of the 11 games at the end of March. Although they had lost five of their last seven, that run was enough to get them into the postseason.
Secondly, this was potentially another thorny matchup for the Celtics. All season long, the teams that had given them the most trouble were those that had size and athleticism at the swing positions. In Joe Johnson and Joe Smith, the Hawks boasted a pairing that could present matchup problems for the Celtics and they were a team that was going to get up and down the floor, making it hard for the Celtics big guns to play upwards of 40 minutes a game at a high level. Johnson was rounding into form nicely, having led the Hawks in scoring in six consecutive games at the start of April, averaging 28 points per game in that span, including 21 against Boston. Smith was also a threat, having averaged 19.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in the last two meetings with the Celtics.
Finally, although the Celtics defeated them three times, the Hawks had managed to narrow the gap. The Celtics defeated them by 23 in just the fourth game of the season, but only by ten in March in Bibby's 8th game with the Hawks and then again by ten with three games remaining in the season. In the final meeting, the Hawks outscored the Celtics 30-19 in a dominant third quarter run and entered the fourth quarter tied, only losing thanks to some unexpected hot shooting from Sam Cassell, who finished with 20 points.
Apart from their athleticism and Bibby's steady playmaking and efficient outside shooting, the Hawks also had some size inside with youngster Al Horford and veteran Zaza Pachulia, so although the Celtics could claim overall superiority, there was no obvious mismatch that they would be able to rely on.
For their own part, the Celtics would initially look to rely on the formula that had garnered them the league's best record. The starting five would play the bulk of the minutes, possibly more than 40 each when necessary. Doc Rivers would hope for some comfortable wins to be able to afford them some rest.
The bench rotation would likely be pared down, but it was clear that this would be flexible and some guys might find themselves benched for a couple of games only to return to the rotation to play a key role in the next one. Hopefully, the last few weeks of the season would have prepared them for this.
Based on those last few weeks, Cassell was likely to back up Rondo, with Powe expected to be the first "big" off the bench. Brown was likely to spell Perkins for as long as foul trouble dictated and Posey would step in for Ray Allen or Pierce when the situation required defense. Davis, House and Tony Allen would wait their turn and take garbage minutes where they could get them with Pollard, Pruitt and Scalabrine expected to be inactive for most of the postseason.
Game one arrived, kindly scheduled at half past one in the morning. Europe salutes you, David Stern! I decided to go for the get-to-bed-early-and-then-wake-up-in-time-for-the-game technique, which never really works, because you are usually so hyped up when the game ends, that you can't get back to sleep - and the following day was a Monday. Ugh. I had timed my awakening for tip-time, as I wasn't concerned with any of the pre-game antics.
As the game got underway, I kept rubbing my eyes, because everything was blurry. Was I unwittingly misty-eyed at the emotion of the Celtics returning to the postseason after an arduous two years at home for the summer? No, this was actually something at the Garden. Perhaps Kevin Garnett, more fired up than usual, had gotten a bit carried away with his powder clap routine. At times in the first few minutes it was difficult to see what was going on, but I'm pretty sure Randall Cunningham threw a couple of interceptions.
The announcers confirmed that the visibility issues were actually caused by excessive pre-game pyrotechnics. As the game got going, the hope was that the Celtics would produce some fireworks on the court. As the smoke cleared, that's exactly what happened in the early stages.
Paul Pierce hit three three pointers in the first quarter, as Boston stormed to a 14 point lead, although the Hawks managed to cut it to eight at the end of the period. With Kendrick Perkins in early foul trouble, Rivers used 11 players in the first quarter, seemingly abandoning the ideal of the pared-down rotation.
Going up mainly against the Boston bench, the Hawks continued their run into the second quarter and by the time they had completed a 14-3 surge, they were within two. Kevin Garnett, playing at a noticeably high level of intensity, broke the run with a jumper, starting Boston on a 6-0 spurt of their own to extend the lead back to eight. After Cassell came up with seven points late in the second period, they led by nine at the half.
The second half saw the Celtics improve and when Ray Allen scored ten consecutive Celtics points in the third, stretching a 13 point lead to 19, the game was essentially over. The Hawks were unable to get within 12 after that point.
Leon Powe provided some of the most memorable highlights with two big fourth quarter dunks, including a big two-hander over two Hawks. It was once again great to see him producing and you had to wonder whether he would have ever developed fast enough to make such a contribution without the opportunity afforded to him by Garnett's mid-season injury.
After a comfortable win, the Celtics had taken care of business and had no reason to believe that they wouldn't win the series easily just like the prognosticators had suggested. Over in Detroit, it was the Pistons whose credentials were coming under serious doubts after they had dropped one to the 76ers.
Two things happened between games one and two. Well, that's not strictly true. Millions of things happened between games one and two, but there were two in particular that are salient in this context.
First of all, Garnett was justifiably announced as the winner of the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, an award he deserved not only for his own performance as the lynchpin of the defense but for the influence he had in getting guys like Pierce and Ray Allen to buy in to the system and play defense with the same level of energy and enthusiasm. Garnett was presented with his award prior to game two and opted for the honorable, although not at all unpredictable step of beckoning his teammates over to share in his acclaim.
The second major talking point was a comment from Mike Bibby following the game one defeat, a game in which - by the way - Bibby struggled mightily. A bitter Bibby protested that the Celtics have a bunch of fair-weather fans. Whether he was right or not, this would have a major impact on game two, as Bibby was lustily booed every single time he touched the ball and would struggle again as fans chanted "Bibby Sucks", "Rondo's Better" and "Where is Bibby?"
Once again the atmosphere was foggy, which seemed out of keeping with the razzamatazz of the modern NBA. Not helping were the ugly dark blue Hawks uniforms, an inferior substitute for the brightly coloured reds, whites and yellows of the Dominique Wilkins (and Doc Rivers) era. Was there something symbolic about this - perhaps that the Celtics were destined to play the series with a cloud hanging over them? We would see.
On this night, the Celtics outscored the Hawks in each period, leading by 10 at the half and 18 in the third quarter as they came up with another routine win, this time by 19 points. Garnett led the way with 19 points and 10 rebounds, including his first three pointer of the season late in the fourth quarter, and the main concern Boston had afterwards was not with how to finish off their opponent, but with the status of their captain, as Paul Pierce had left the game after having been the victim of a hard foul in the first quarter, although he had returned to score 14 points. Post game reports, though, were than he would be fine.
So far so good, then? It was a widely held view that the series was now a foregone conclusion. My own prediction of a hard-fought series was looking dubious. Two comfortable Celtics wins meant that the Hawks would need to win four of five, including at least one on Boston's floor, to steal the series.
The Hawks, however, had every reason to continue believing they could give the Celtics problems. Returning home, they would have the fans behind them, fans that had been starving for playoff basketball since the team lost in the Eastern Conference Semi finals in the 1999 playoffs. These fans had added reason to be optimistic (and loud), because just 12 months earlier, a number eight seed (the Golden State Warriors) had eliminated the top seeded reigning Western Conference champion Dallas Mavericks, spurred on by a raucous home following. The crowd was also likely to be overly supportive of Bibby, who had floundered mightily in the face of some relentless catcalling from the Garden faithful. Maybe the officiating would favor them slightly more too, not that I would ever dream of suggesting that the league would look kindly upon the drama and intrigue of the series being extended a little longer.
Other than the home cooking, the Hawks had other reasons to keep battling. Rookie Al Horford had showed some promise with 20 and 10 in the first game and Josh Smith had scored 13 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked four shots in the second game. Additionally, we were about to find out, if we hadn't already learnt this in the regular season, that Rajon Rondo is not the same player on the road.
Despite this, the Celtics were still heavily favored. "The Hawks are no match for the Celtics...it isn't even close" is what it said on the front page of Celticsblog. The first paragraph of the Associated Press game two recap said "Mike Bibby can talk about the Celtics fans all he wants now, because it doesn't look like the Hawks will be coming back to Boston."
Tomorrow: Re-live how the series ended, with another excerpt from my book, which you can buy or download here.