BOSTON -- 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,
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
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.