Listen, I realize the Celtics are a better team than the Hawks. You wouldn’t find a sane person who would debate you on that concept. But for the best team to win, they have to actually do what they do best. In this case, for the Celtics, that means winning at home on Thursday night.
The Celts were 24-9 this season at home and 15-18 on the road. Sure, some of that has to do with how the schedule was set up, but the vast majority of it is because of the way the team feeds of the energy of the crowd, and the way the key young players respond to that crowd. Guys like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce use that type of energy to take their games to another level, especially in big spots.
We saw first hand, in Game 5, how vulnerable the Celtics can be on the road. Are they capable of winning a playoff game there? Of course - they’ve already done that this series in Game 2 and they nearly pulled out Game 5 despite trailing nearly the entire game. But asking them to win twice in one series on the road is asking a lot, especially if they’re coming off consecutive losses headed into Game 7.
There’s no doubt that Pierce, Ray Allen and Garnett are aware of how to play in a road environment. They’re not exactly new to this thing. Neither is Rajon Rondo, for that matter, although I have less confidence in him keeping his head in a big situation than I do with other three (see: Game 1). It will be interesting to see how he reacts to a crowd that will be on him from the opening tip, and probably won’t let up until the final whistle.
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As for the rest of the guys? Well, if you watched Game 5, you saw a group that was a little caught up in the atmosphere. Avery Bradley had two points. The bench had a grand total of 25 points, but 15 of those were from Allen, who might as well be considered a sixth starter. There isn’t necessarily a problem, just a slight concern.
Essentially, the Celtics would rather finish this now then have to face a raucous Atlanta crowd in Game 7, with no momentum. It’s common sense.
Except, it might not be a “rather” situation. It might be a do-or-die situation.
I’m not convinced the Celtics can win Game 7 in Atlanta.
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I’m not pessimistic by nature, but there are certain realities right now in Boston that can’t be ignored. They’re older then most teams, and the more games they play in a short period of time, the more vulnerable they are. They’re dinged up. They were possibly already looking ahead to a potentially favorable match-up in the second round during Game 5. Their bench, beyond Allen, is weak. The Hawks are suddenly fired up, and surprisingly healthier than we ever could imagined.
The Hawks aren’t the favorites going forward, but they aren’t exactly overwhelming underdogs either.
Al Horford has come back and played out of his mind. Once thought to be out for the entire series, he was the reason the Hawks were able to hold on and win Game 5. When Rondo stole the ball in the final seconds and inexplicably dribbled into the corner, it was Horford who stood his ground, guarded him and eventually forced the loose ball that ended the game. Couple that with 19 points and 11 rebounds, and Horford was the best Atlanta player on the court.
His injury was part of the reason why everybody in the land picked the Celtics to win this series. Once Josh Smith got hurt in Game 3, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Celts would waltz into the next round. Well now, Smith and Horford are playing, and the Hawks are one win away from playing a winner-take-all Game 7 in their arena, in front of their fans, against a shell-shocked and wounded Celtics team.
Talk about a role reversal. The Celts were healthy coming into the series, beyond a slightly bruised Ray Allen. Now they’ve got Allen, Pierce and Avery Bradley battling injuries, and the Hawks are getting livelier, seemingly younger, and healthier by the day.
Again – the Celtics might have to win on Thursday to keep their hopes alive. If they’re forced to come back and play Saturday, we’re talking about another day of travel to Atlanta, another loss ruminating in their heads and another off-day/victory for the Hawks to get healthier and more confident.
It’s suddenly a dicey situation. The best-case scenario – and I’m not exactly breaking news here – would have been for the Celtics to win Game 5. That would have moved them on, given them plenty of rest while the Sixers and Bulls dueled it out, and instilled them as clear favorites to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
Now, if you had to ask any analyst at gun point, he’d still probably have the Celtics reaching that point. But he wouldn’t feel all that confident about the pick.
People can spew information about home court not mattering all they would like, but the evidence is there. This is an old stat, but it’s not like it’s changed much the past three years: From 1986-2008, home teams won 47 of 66 Game 7′s, regardless of which round the Game 7 took place in. That doesn’t make it a slam dunk, but it does mean that nearly three-quarters of the time the home team comes out victorious.
And remember, the Celtics aren’t particularly good on the road. And they’re significantly older than Atlanta at nearly every position.
Just add it up. It’s not pessimism, it’s just reality. The Celtics need to win on Thursday night. If they don’t? Their late-season resurgence, which led to so much talk about one more run to the NBA Finals, might all be for naught.
In the blink of an eye, It could be the Hawks that will suddenly become the favorites to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
You better believe the Heat are loving every minute of this.
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