A few losses to the Hawks could be just what the No. 1 Celtics needed
The Celtics aren't good enough to win the championship.
At this moment, that is. Losing two games in Atlanta to the league's worst playoff team while blowing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in Game 4 serves as proof the NBA's top seed must raise its play.
Two outcomes pend the Celtics' response as they return home Wednesday for Game 5 of this suddenly even series. One less than likely possibility is that they lose in this first round to the No. 8 seed Hawks (in what would become the biggest upset the league has seen, far more shocking than No. 1 Dallas losing to No. 8 Golden State last year) or in the second round to the Cavaliers. Then the Celtics will look back on their long weekend in Atlanta realizing it revealed a flaw they were unable to fix.
The other possibility is that the Celtics learn from these two losses that they need to play at a much higher level, with more defensive effort and more offensive discipline. Call this the consultant theory: If the Celtics learn their lessons and take bloom throughout the remainder of the playoffs, they will look back on the Hawks as a kind of postseason adviser brought in to analyze and reveal where Boston needs to improve.
By blocking 12 shots over the last two games, the Hawks demonstrated that the Celtics are playing too fast or too loose offensively, that they need to precisely execute sets that will force the long, athletic defenders away from the basket.
By exploding for 20 fourth-quarter points in Game 4, Joe Johnson proved that the Celtics are far from ready to deal with the likes of Rip Hamilton, Manu Ginobili or -- gasp -- Kobe Bryant in future rounds.
The one similarity between this series and the Mavericks' loss to the Warriors a year ago is that Boston -- like that unfortunate 67-win Dallas team -- hasn't played a meaningful game in weeks. The Celtics won an impressive three-game swing through Texas concluding March 20, followed by a couple of home games the next week against Phoenix and New Orleans, and since then they've been trying to inspire themselves artificially. As Dirk Nowitzki can tell them, nothing prepares a contender like real competition.
The Pistons provide another, and more promising, example. They were making fools of themselves while committing a season-high 25 turnovers in a Game 3 blowout at Philadelphia to trail the No. 7 seed 2-1 last weekend. But Detroit recovered its sensibilities, slowed the tempo and has outscored the 76ers by 36 points over the last three halves.
While the 76ers were using their quickness to force Detroit turnovers on the perimeter, the Hawks have been applying their length and athleticism to protect the rim and turn the Celtics into a jump-shooting team that is converting only 43.5 percent against an Atlanta defense that ranked 21st in that category during the season, when it yielded a lenient 46.3 percent.
The Hawks collapsed during their opening losses in Boston, and had that trend continued in Atlanta, what good would it have done for a Celtics team that hopes to convert its league-leading 66-16 season into a 17th championship? Because it's clear now that the Celtics haven't been sharp enough to go far. Game 5 (and even more so Game 6) will serve as a referendum on whether they have it in them to raise their game to the high level shown so far by the Lakers, Spurs and Hornets.
If it turns out that the exhaustive regular season took something out of them, then the Celtics can blame no one but themselves. But if they use this series as a source of improvement and newfound intensity, then the Celtics will look back and thank Atlanta for its unfriendly opposition. By embarrassing them over the past two games, the Hawks have done the Celtics an enormous favor.
Sean Avery out for season with spleen injury
New York Rangers forward Sean Avery lacerated his spleen in Tuesday's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins and will miss the rest of the season, a Rangers spokeswoman said on Wednesday.The 28-year-old was rushed to a Manhattan hospital several hours after the Rangers lost a Stanley Cup playoff game against the Penguins at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers said it was not immediately clear what caused the injury but Avery's mother told the Toronto Sun he was hurt in the first period when colliding with a Penguins defenseman.Avery "will be sidelined for the remainder of the season", the team said in a statement. "He is expected to make a full recovery during the off-season."
The New York Daily News said Avery's team mates were expected to visit him in the hospital on Wednesday.During the 2005-2006 season, the Canadian-born player led the league in penalty minutes.
Mavericks Fire Johnson After Early Playoff Exit
Avery Johnson was fired by the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday, and Mike D’Antoni clung loosely to his job in Phoenix — their fates underscoring that success is no guarantee of security for N.B.A. head coaches.
The Mavericks fired Johnson a day after his team was eliminated from the playoffs by the New Orleans Hornets. The Suns also lost their first-round series, to the San Antonio Spurs, amid widespread reports that D’Antoni would be replaced.
Johnson guided the Mavericks to the finals two years ago and compiled a 194-70 record (.735) in three-plus seasons. D’Antoni has a 232-96 record (.707) with the Suns, who advanced to the Western Conference finals in 2005 and 2006.
The dismissal of Johnson and the probable departure of D’Antoni could make this one of the most tumultuous years ever for N.B.A. coaches. Four others have been fired: Scott Skiles in Chicago, Larry Krystkowiak in Milwaukee, Isiah Thomas in New York and Sam Vincent in Charlotte. In addition, Pat Riley stepped down in Miami and handed the reins to Eric Spoelstra.