To fully appreciate what the Celtics pulled off tonight, you need to place it within the proper context, looking at how it fits into the ridiculous roller-coaster ride that is the 2012-13 season.
The first time the C's faced the Atlanta Hawks, it was Jan. 5 and they were reeling from a terrible West Coast road trip. They got down 19 in the second quarter, they charged back in the second half, and they eventually won 89-81 behind 26 points from Paul Pierce, 17 in the third quarter. They were 16-17.
The second time, it was Jan. 25. The Celtics got up 27 early, but then Rajon Rondo tore his ACL, Kyle Korver buried them in a blizzard of 3-pointers, two overtimes transpired, and the Hawks eventually won 123-111. It was Boston's sixth straight loss. They were 20-23, without their best player for the rest of the season (though they didn't know it yet), and facing the very real possibility of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Again it was a wild one. Again the lead swung back and forth uncontrollably -- the Celtics somehow went from tied (28-28 in the second quarter) to up 10 (41-31 later in the second) to tied again (45-45, still the second) to up 10 again (80-70 in the fourth quarter) to tied again (92-92 with a minute and a half to play). Then they went to overtime, then they fell behind by four, and then came consecutive 3's by Jeff Green, Pierce and Jason Terry to unbelievably steal the win. It was the Celtics' ninth straight home win and fifth straight overall victory. Now they're 34-27 -- and forget about the playoffs themselves, their sights are now set on home court in the first round.
There's something about this team, man. This just always happens.
"I'm really proud of our guys," coach Doc Rivers gushed afterward. "I thought we competed all night. We made some mistakes defensively -- we lost guys when we shouldn't have, we switched when we shouldn't have. But those are all things we can work on, so I can live with all of those. I just thought we played with the right spirit."
They played with the spirit of a team that desperately needs every win it can get. Considering that six weeks ago, the Celtics' season was practically over, it's pretty amazing that here they are now, seven games over .500 and celebrating wins over a murderers' row of playoff teams.
"We're working hard," Kevin Garnett said. "We haven't gave in to the [one expletive] [another expletive] critics. We're working hard. We're grinding. We're showing our character. Our coach is a grinder himself, and his team is just that. We're not looking for any handouts or sympathy or anything. We don't expect anybody to give us nothing. We're going out and working hard for everything we're getting."
The Celtics' three duels with the Hawks this year have been epic. These two teams have a history -- they went to seven games against each other in the 2008 playoffs, then six last spring. They may well face each other again this year (four-five matchup, anyone?). They've had dramatic games, chippy games, shootout games, ugly games. They've had it all.
Playing East playoff foes tends to bring out the best in these Celtics, especially late in the year. And late this year, look what they've done -- they've beaten Chicago, they've beaten Indy and they've beaten Atlanta, all within the last few weeks.
"I don't think it does anything as far as what we're going to do in the playoffs," Rivers maintained. "I always look at the regular season as its own entity. The playoffs are the playoffs -- guys have more rest, they have more time to prepare for you, they're looking forward to you, whereas in the regular season, you just play.
"But it just tells our guys what we already believe," he added. "Which is, we'll play anybody."
Will they ever.