Returning to the Garden 0-2, the Celtics need to fight through the fear if they don’t want to watch the season slip away
Is the fear setting in for you? Have all the prophecies of doom and predictions of failure gotten under your skin? Are you taking deep, panicked breaths, worried that the Celtics season was all for naught?
Good. Fear can be your friend.
If the fear has begun to set in for the players that’s definitely good. Fear is what makes us fight, what makes us run. Fear is the driving force behind hustle.
I hope this Boston team feels the fear. I hope they’re scared of seeing their season slip away. I hope they’re afraid of being swept all over again. Frankly, I hope they’re terrified. If they are, that fear might just fuel them to fight for this series.
The bad news is Boston has gone down two games in a playoff series that was meant to be fairly even but that more and more has looked like a complete mismatch, with the Celtics being outclassed by the Hawks.
To add to their woes the Celtics are struggling with injuries. AB is out, and his production on both ends of the floor is sorely missed.
Crowder hasn’t been quite himself since coming back from his own injury, and all the development he has made this season seems to have been washed away while he battles through the pain.
Olynyk was out in Game 2, and there’s several scrapes and bruises throughout the roster, with Smart and IT both having been banged up as well.
Beyond this, the whole Celtics team identity seems to have been battered, bruised and beaten. Their hard-fought season of hard-nosed basketball has come to a halt against the Hawks, who are so far showing themselves to be the superior side.
Wear and tear is starting to show for both teams, but still the Celtics seem to have gotten the worst of it, and they're suffering in the series as a result.
Not so bad news
Despite the doomsayers out there, this series still isn’t over. If the Celtics can manage a win in both their home games, they’re back at even. If this team were down halfway through a game I doubt fans out there would be ready to throw in the towel, so there’s still plenty of time left in this thing.
Besides that, a deep playoff run was never really going to do much for this team. As great as it might have been, it was never the goal at the beginning of the season.
The Celtics fought hard through the regular season and improved their record to tie for third. The weird division tiebreaker rule didn’t break the Celtics' way, and they ended up facing their least preferred opponent, in their least preferred bracket and going on the road for their first two games. So things haven’t gone exactly as planned for the playoffs, but it’s hardly an indictment on the team.
Regardless the Celtics still have a chance at getting back in this series, especially considering the Hawks haven’t played all that well really. As has been noted, besides the early surge in Game 2 the scoring throughout was held pretty even. The Celtics were just unable to dig themselves out of the hole with any additional offence.
Being two down in the series should prompt Stevens to strategize and figure out what’s not working. Sometimes a simple adjustment, like moving IT to shooting guard or playing in transition more, can be the difference in the series, and it can take some devastating losses to motivate the change.
More importantly though, if the Celtics play their game and are able to take the Hawks out of rhythm with strong defense and fast-break offense, they can still string together some wins. Although at this stage they seem to be slipping further into underdog status with almost every possession.
The light at the end of the tunnel
The Celtics definitely still want to avoid a sweep in the first round. They’re not meant to be a ‘just happy to be here’ team this year, but no other teams entering the playoffs, or anywhere else in the NBA, have the bevy of draft picks and treasure trove of trade assets that the Celtics have stored up.
This was never the Celtics' season. Even the most dyed-in-the-kelly-green-wool Celtics fan wouldn't have thought this team had a chance at making it all the way to the Finals, let alone knocking over Golden State or the Spurs or any of the top Western teams in a series.
Luckily, in his wisdom Ainge has known for a long time exactly where this Celtics team is at, and he has been stocking up and scouting and talking trades and getting ready for what’s likely to be an extremely busy offseason.
This year was more about figuring out who was working and who wasn’t before the franchise builds on the success it has already had and aims towards the future. With that in mind, this playoff series has been fairly revealing and could still show us plenty more.
At the end of the day if the Celtics fall short in their playoff push it won’t be a surprise to anyone. They’ve played tough all season long, and it would be good to see them hang in for more of the playoffs yet hope has always been on the horizon.
The Celtics shouldn’t start looking to the offseason just yet, but when they do there’s plenty to look at.
Meanwhile back in Boston
Before the Celtics look to their bright future though, they’ve got to play the game in front of them. Playing two games back in front of the home crowd, the Celtics have to hope they can turn this series around.
The playoffs is exactly where teams can cement their status and players can prove themselves. The playoffs is where all that hustle and grit and drive is supposed to pay off, where all the players still looking to shine and to silence the doubters and the haters can finally prove their worth, where comebacks become the stuff of sports legend and the players that drive them become superstars.
With the Celtics playing for respect, playing for retribution, and playing for roster spots, there is plenty to drive them. The key now is for them to play through the fear and see how far they can go.