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The Scariest Part of Three Losses to the Hawks...

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...is the fact that the Celtics have been playing hard throughout this series -- or at least they seem to have been.

This is a league in which 'mailing it in' Is often the easiest applicable excuse.  This is particularly true during the regular season, when it sometimes seems as though winning and losing is simply determined by which team shows up and which team doesn't at all.  Not as much in the playoffs, but this occurs there, too.

On the surface, the mailing-it-in issue seems like a palatable problem to have because it seems to be the rather easy to solve: Play harder!

Of course, that isn't always as easily done as said, and sometimes these guys have a much more difficult time motivating themselves than that for which we give them credit.  But by and large, we know that mailing it in is fixable to some extent.  The 'better team' knows it has dropped a few games it shouldn't, so it stops taking them for granted and starts showing up to work, and all gets taken care of.

Indeed, the Celtics have been dominant throughout the portion of this series that has been played in Boston, so by no means are we writing any eulogies already for this team (we've got plenty of faith, too, in case the logic on its own wasn't good enough), but the concern remains: This team hasn't lost simply because it has slacked off and allowed the Hawks to take three games out of pure fortune.  This series has clearly no longer been about the Celtics giving, and plenty of it has become about the Hawks taking.  Whether that is fixable remains to be seen.

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I haven't watched the three games in Atlanta and wondered about why this team didn't care.  I haven't been wondering why Paul Pierce can't be bothered to make an effort on defense, because he has been doing just that.  I haven't wondered why KG doesn't have his intensity, because he still has his intensity.  Rondo is still sprinting every second.  The rest of the boys have been showing up to work.

They've just been getting out-worked.  And out-thought.  And out-executed.  And out-coached.

It doesn't appear that the Celtics aren't hustling, but it does seem that the Hawks have beaten them to all the 50-50 balls during the battles in Atlanta.  It seems that -- questionable officiating notwithstanding -- the Hawks are the ones most likely to get to the foul line simply because they keep attacking the rim while the Celts keep settling or panicked jump shots.  The Hawks aren't the ones who keep running out of timeouts at the ends of close games, and they aren't the ones who didn't seem to have a play ready in case Mike Bibby missed a free throw to give the Celtics a chance to tie it and send it to overtime with a trey.

No, the Celtics' three losses can't simply be written off as those of a team uninterested in actually doing the right thing.  The Celtics have been interested every night in this series, and yet a team with 29 less regular season wins has beaten them in three of the six games they've played thus far.   That team has played with poise down the stretch at home, and that team has run itself through a go-to scorer who couldn't see to be stopped when the game was on the line.  That team has shown that -- at least for this series -- it can play with the one we love so much.  Now, it sits just one road win away from taking down our Celtics.

So it isn't as simple as coming home and flipping a switch from off to on.  With this team, that would have been easy.

Make no mistake: The Celts have been their season-long dominant selves at home this postseason.  But the Hawks have also been the better basketball team in Atlanta.  Not just the luckier team.  Not the team that benefitted from the opponent not playing hard.  The team that outplayed the other team and had what it took to win three games at home.

By all accounts, the Celtics should win this basketball game and move on to face LeBron and the Cavs in the semis.  But the fellows in green have some legitimate basketball questions to answer between now and Sunday afternoon.  And even though I have all the faith imaginable in this team, that's still the part of this that scares me.