BOSTON -- All of a sudden the Celtics looked like potential NBA champions. But the appearances of their 101-79 win over the Hawks in Game 4 on Sunday were as revealing as the picture of Dorian Gray. They looked young, but felt old. Home-court advantage in the second round and a conference final for the third time in five years were within their reach, and yet three of their most important players couldn't be sure of playing in Game 5 on Tuesday at Atlanta.
"You literally don't know," said coach Doc Rivers of the availability of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Avery Bradley. His expression betrayed the satisfaction of watching his team build up a 37-point lead before garbage time set in.
Of course, he did enjoy watching his defense force 11 turnovers and at least 24 deflections by halftime, which enabled Rajon Rondo to manage a conversion rate of 63.6 percent and a 64-41 advantage that essentially gave Boston a 3-1 series lead then and there. At the same time, all of that good work showed how much the Celtics have to lose. They were focused on their vulnerability Sunday morning, when 34-year-old Pierce went down with a knee injury as the team walked through its shootaround. "He was just dribbling the ball and went to the floor," Rivers said. "When he went down, it didn't look good."
Rivers thought his leading scorer would be unable to play. That night Pierce came out for his pre-game warmup, smiling and laughing with the staff before he flicked the ball like a hustler showing off in a pool hall, walking from this spot here to that corner there and ramming down shot after shot after shot. All that was missing were the cigarettes and the scotch. He said so long by taking a full stride back from the right corner, out of bounds, and swishing a show-off jumper before he turned and jogged back to the locker room.
So often players will say their pre-game shooting will have nothing to do with what happens later, but in this case Pierce made 10-of-13 (and four of his six threes) for 24 points in 17 minutes. Even so, Rivers was cringing all the same in the second quarter when Pierce limped off the floor and into the locker room. He returned in the third to swish a pair of threes and rode a courtside bike to keep his knee from stiffening. "We haven't really played well yet, we've just been winning games," Pierce said. "Finally we were able to put it together offensively and defensively and really play well."
In what may be their final season together, two years past their supposed expiration date, much of Boston's success depends on the perimeter defense of the young guards Rondo and Bradley. If they prevent penetration, then their elders don't need to rotate and can focus on rebounding, which had been a weakness until recently. When they defend and rebound then Rondo can dictate the pace, spread the floor and do the heavy lifting that makes the game easy for everyone. He is the makeup that makes them all look handsome and young.
It is Rondo (20 points on 11 shots and 16 assists to one turnover) who defines the Celtics. When he was out of sorts in Game 3, so were they. Those lapses are growing shorter and rarer. The Hawks were hoping to be inspired by the returns of center Al Horford, who hadn't played since January, and power forward Josh Smith, who missed Game 3 with a sprained knee. But Rondo and Smith have been close friends since high school, and Rondo could see Smith was distracted and unable to drive the ball with confidence. As Smith dribbled aimlessly in the early going, trying to decide what he could do, Rondo stripped him in the front court to launch a fast break that Rondo himself brought to a halt unpredictably, like a conductor changing the tempo to poignancy from bliss. Unlike Smith, Rondo was dribbling with inscrutable purpose until Garnett could cut behind the defense to receive his nonchalant pass for a hard dunk.
Rondo's head-fakes were subtle and exquisite. Some times he threw the ball like a quarterback passing into the flat, and other times he shook it from side to side as if he was breathing on a hot pair of dice. The Celtics can say that it all starts with their team defense because it does, but if they didn't have Rondo to turn that hard work into art then what would it mean? He is becoming as valuable to his team's suddenly reachable dream of title contention as LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Tony Parker are to theirs. (Kobe Bryant, with five championships, operates from his own higher tier.)
But, for a team so old and lacking in imposing size, the good news must always be followed by the realistic "but." As imposing as they've been, they can't pretend they aren't at risk. Bradley has had troubles all year with his left shoulder, which separated in Game 3 and caused the doctors to scrutinize his pre-game workout before allowing him to contribute 19 minutes Sunday. Allen (5-of-9 for 12 points in 19 minutes) said he feels "surprisingly great," but Rivers couldn't be sure how the injured ankle of his 36-year-old guard would feel the next day or the day after that.
Every sensational play he and his teammates made was balanced by Allen's thoughts on flying to Atlanta on Monday. "Traveling takes a toll on your body being in the air," he said. "I think everybody's going to deal with some type of swelling. Getting into the hotel and just staying off your feet is huge." He sounded like an insurance agent on the phone to his wife during a long sales trip, which isn't a criticism but a compliment. It is amazing that the oldest Celtics are able to perform so well after so many years of success.
The vulnerability of the Celtics is framed by the misfortunes of their rivals. If Derrick Rose or Dwight Howard can go down before their primes, then what to make of Pierce or Allen or 35-year-old Kevin Garnett? A conference final is within their reach, and maybe even a championship, but who can guess what any of them may be able to do when they wake up in the morning?