Date: May 10, 2012
Location: TD Banknorth Garden, Boston, MA (As commenter Ben correctly pointed out here.)
Final Score: 83-80
Key Players: Kevin Garnett (28 points, 14 rebounds), Paul Pierce (18 points, 7 assists)
Top Plays: 1:40 (Rajon Rondo beats the buzzer, ends the 3rd quarter with a long two), 2:18 (Garnett’s late basket gives Boston a lead they wouldn’t relinquish), 2:34 (Paul Pierce with the key block on Josh Smith’s layup)
Rundown: This was…a weird one. Boston went on a 7-0 run in the first four minutes of the 4th quarter to build a nine point lead, then scored just four points until the final 30 seconds of the game, allowing the Hawks to take the lead by one.
Kevin Garnett’s turnaround jumper with just over 30 seconds remaining gave Boston the lead for good, but it was far from secure. Josh Smith, after a terrific game, did a very Josh Smith thing, throwing a contested 20 foot jumper over Brandon Bass’ outstretched hand. The shot barely grazed the rim, and Ray Allen grabbed the rebound. Allen, who was surprisingly bad from the free throw line in the playoffs, split the free throws, giving the Hawks one more chance to tie or take the lead. Pierce played excellent defense on Joe Johnson, swatting away his layup attempt, but Al Horford earned a trip to the free throw line with a chance to tie. He split his free throws as well, and Pierce iced the game at the line on the other end, sending the Celtics to the second round of the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.
What it meant: When the playoffs began, very few media outlets projected the Celtics to go beyond the second round of the playoffs, and very few projected them to lose in the first. But that was before Derrick Rose was injured and the Sixers upset the Bulls. After Rose’s injury, Atlanta seemed like the biggest obstacle blocking the Celtics from an Eastern Conference Finals showdown with Miami. Defeating the Hawks felt monumental, since most C’s fans had been pining for playoff matchup with the Heat after beating them 3-1 in the regular season.
So once again, defeating the Hawks felt preliminary. Atlanta has never been a bitter rival for Boston, mainly because they pose more of a stepping stone than a real threat. When the Hawks pushed Boston to seven games in 2008, showing themselves as an up and coming Eastern Conference team, there was honestly very little question as to whether or not Boston would lose the series. The Hawks simply didn’t have the firepower to beat Boston at the time. They still didn’t in 2012.
One exasperated writer took to Twitter to complain that the Celtics would beat the Hawks and the Sixers “for no other reason than that they are the Celtics,” which was weirdly true. We had a feeling that both the Atlanta and the Philadelphia series’ would be close (and they were), but in neither case did it feel like Boston had come to the end of the road. Not because the Celtics were a bad matchup for either team (they weren’t), just because, well, they were the Celtics. Boston felt destined to battle out a series with the Heat.
Before the playoffs began, most of us believed that we were seeing the final days of the Big 3 era. Whether it would be Ray Allen, KG, or both, we were expecting to lose part of the core that won the title in 2008. And though winning this series wasn’t a surprise, it was good to see that the Celtics were going to make some semblance of a postseason run in their last year together.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.