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For Celtics, Next Stop: Choke City

A funny thing happened on the way to title town…A Celtic team that looked to be improving throughout the year, got a flat tire on the playoff highway, and pit-stopped in choke city.

With all due respect to the feisty Hawks team, the numbers simply don’t lie. Boston has been a superior team in every facet of the game throughout the regular season. The Celtics have more than twice the collective playoff experience on their roster than do their Atlanta counterparts and Boston’s three Hall of Fame bound leaders have almost 20 years playing experience advantage vs. their Hawks counterparts.

But all that goes out the window apparently at the first sign of playoff pressure. Let’s put this on the table before we completely tear this team apart. The level of expectation and the stress and anxiety that comes with it is virtually unimaginable for the common fan. Few of us in everyday life face the type scrutiny and require the level of discipline necessary to embark on a journey such as these Celtics are on now.

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GPA and company have had the weight of the NBA world waiting right around the corner, ready to land on them at the slightest sign of slippage. After a tremendous regular season and a quick start to the first round, it looked like that pressure-cooker might not rear its head…but it did.

There is no doubt that this was a choke job of epic proportions. The talking heads may parrot the old "this is what the playoffs are about" routine and try to create a mystical barrier between regular and post season play, but that discrepancy only goes so far. Series play allows teams to make adjustments and exploit weaknesses more effectively.

What it is not suppose to do is systematically dismantle a team’s psychological composure and ability to execute the offensive and defensive principles of which the regular season relied…but it did.

Atlanta has fed incredibly off its home-court crowd, a crowd that provided the needed juice to get the younger, less polished Hawks up and running at their best. The Hawks fed off energy its building created for them and won the hustle stats across the board in both games. They were able to run transition and force the issue over and over again.

But what is most egregious in all of this is not what Atlanta did right, but what Boston failed to do. In both road games, Boston completely lost its half-court composure. In game 3 Boston’s lackadaisical approach to the contest opened up the flood-gates for the Hawks to gain steam.

The Celtics pulled out the "old pro" approach to its offensive attack, simply walking into every possession and methodically moving the ball around before settling for a shot. Despite their assist numbers, Boston’s offense was not aggressive or action-oriented. The Celtics held or dribbled the ball far too often and few feet were moving when the ball wasn’t in hand.

In game 4 things got worse.

As the old Celtic saying goes, "playing HARD, isn’t the same as playing SMART." Tonight Boston proved the point. Despite the team’s quick start, the shot selection and passing discipline that was the hallmark of this team for so long during the regular season was virtually void from the game.

This was never more evident than during the crucial fourth quarter. Before the team timeout at the 4:16 mark, the Celtics almost exclusively relied on shots created off the dribble or a single pass-almost all of which were outside of 17 feet. The pick-and-roll game that treated Boston so well all season was MIA as the ball was almost never delivered and the ball-handler almost never prepared to do so.

As the cameras focused on a shell-shocked Garnett late in the waning seconds of this upset, you could almost feel the confusion behind his distant staring eyes. There was no anger, but beyond that there looked to be no understanding of what had befallen his club.

This sentiment was re-iterated by coach Doc Rivers during his post-game press conference. Rivers said that when he walked into the locker room players were half-heartedly re-assuring himself that "things would be fine" as soon as they got back home, as if that was the elixir to fix their ills. But Rivers was spot on when he told them, "YOU have to make it right, it’s not going to happen on its own."

One thing is for sure. This team can’t rely on anything but the strengths of the fundamentals that got it here. Panic hasn’t just set in amongst the Celtics faithful, it has permeated into the hearts and minds of the players that take the court.

While the team may not take the floor on Wednesday with fear limiting their aggression, they must be sure that the fear does not blind them from focusing on where to direct that aggression….

…and make no mistake about it, this team is afraid. Afraid that a season’s worth of promise could crash down around them in and avalanche unfulfilled expectations…fear can be a healthy motivator when properly channeled, but deadly if panic sets in…

Fear is a part of competing for something when there's something to lose, but you either channel that fear or it consumes and controls you.

Fear is what got this team 66 wins in the regular season, what enabled them to take it "one game at a time" and maintain focus over the long haul.

Tonight that fear took a turn toward desperation, and desperation can quickly breed panic.....execution cannot exist in a state of panic...and the Celtics will cease to exist if panic continues to ruin their ability to execute.

…time to see what this team is made of…

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