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If you had told me two months ago that the Boston Celtics would host the first two games of a second-round playoff series, I would have laughed. Or maybe I would have scoffed and said I’m just looking forward to Red Sox season.
Either way, I would have been very, very wrong.
Before the Celtics blow a golden chance at the Eastern Conference Finals (dare I say the NBA Finals? No, you’re right, I dare not.), let’s look back and appreciate their Round One match-up against the Atlanta Hawks.
Suspensions, bone spurs, MCL sprains, extra gas, and heaven-sent 22-footers straight from the Gospel of Josh Smith? We’ve got it all in the Celtics Report Card: Playoff Edition.
16.8 points per game, 11.8 assists per game, one triple-double, the audacity not to tally double-digit assists in Game Six, one ejection, a botched wide-open layup, and one ongoing enigma of a player. Ladies and gentlemen, Rajon Rondo! Alternately indifferent and exceptional, Rondo managed to both single-handedly almost sabotage and then salvage the Celtics season. There was the inexplicable/inexcusable referee chest bump that could have easily derailed the Celtics, then a 17-12-14 the game after his suspension to put the C’s in the driver’s seat. There were dazzling bounce passes through the smallest of windows, and puzzling passes with a wide open layup right in front of him (not to mention the non-pass to end Game 5). I give up.
Separated left shoulder? No problem! Avery Bradley may not have continued the scoring pace he had before (12 ppg pre-injury vs. 4.7 after), but he still applied manic defense to Jeff Teague and even the six-inch-taller Joe Johnson (then again, he’s still Joe Johnson, no matter how tall he is). Bradley and Rondo will be crucial in setting the tempo and keeping pace with the Sixers on the break.
Paul Pierce continues to be nothing short of a warrior on the court for the Celtics. With Rondo suspended for Game 2, Pierce submitted a heroic 36-point, 14-rebound, four-assist refuse-to-lose effort. Then, after hurting his knee in a shootaround and tweaking it further in the second quarter of Game 4, Pierce dragged his bum leg up and down the court for another 38 minutes per game in Games 5 and 6. I can’t dock him too many points for shooting under 50 percent in those two games.
It’s probably for the best that Brandon Bass didn’t play a crucial role in Round One, taking no more than ten shots in any one game. He has been the weak link in the Celtics starting frontcourt, shooting just over 41 percent from the floor. Luckily for him, though…
…Kevin Garnett has been playing out of his mind, which is separate from my assumption that he’s borderline insane. He averaged 18.7 points and 10.5 rebounds, and that doesn’t even begin to quantify his contributions on the court. Closing out the Hawks at home, Garnett took a trip back to 2004, abusing the Hawks in the post and submitting a vintage 28 points, 14 boards, two assists, three steals, and five (!) blocks.
My sincerest thanks to Hawks owner Michael Gearon, Jr. Keep on flapping those gums and pretending they’re wings.
If I weren’t a scrawny, pasty six-footer with the athletic ability of a 53-year-old, I would absolutely donate my ankles to Ray Allen. God knows the bench needs his scoring (over 11 ppg against Atlanta), and maybe then the pain wouldn’t make him clank four (!) free throws in Games 5 and 6. A healthy Allen also keeps Sasha Pavlovic and Marquis Daniels (and his stupid inbounds fouls) from seeing the light of day.
Revelation of the First Round: Keyon Dooling might actually be kind of somewhat mildly reliable off the bench. He brought the ball up the floor without causing me too much stress, hit a couple of big corner threes despite the ugliest looking jumpshot this side of Blake Griffin, and even pulled off the Nelly Band-Aid look surprisingly well.
Who are you, Ryan Hollins, and what have you done with Greg Stiemsma? For whatever reason, Stiemsma is out of the rotation and Hollins is in. Not that there is much of a difference between the two – each gives you a handful of rebounds, a couple of blocks, maybe a putback or two, and fouls. Lots and lots of fouls. Maybe Hollins has finally figured out enough for the Celtics to put his athleticism to use defensively.
Meanwhile, Mickael Pietrus is struggling to find his shot from three-point range but still chipping in on defense with his length and versatility. Nonetheless, the Celtics could really benefit from him stretching the floor, giving them some spacing so Rondo can penetrate into the lane or Garnett can go to work on the block without an immediate double-team.
Doc Rivers has leaned heavily on his starters, playing an aging Garnett and an injured Pierce especially long minutes. But I can’t say he’s had much of a choice, considering the Celtics’ bench scoring. Strategically, his decisions to end Game 6 (foul up by three, let Rondo win a track meet to run out the clock) went brilliantly – even if it left me with my heart in my throat pondering every imaginable way it could horribly backfire.
Now I can only hope home court advantage and a win in Game 1 against the Philadelphia 76ers means a more straightforward road to clinching (and grading) Round Two.