Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I'm Gonna Go Out On A Limb...

...and say the Atlanta Hawks will steal, or more like wrestle, Game 5 away from the Celtics in Boston and win the series back in Atlanta. Yes, the same Atlanta Hawks who had a losing record in the regular season. Yes, the same Boston Celtics who had a league-best 66 wins. Incidentally that's one less win than Dallas had last year.

What I'm saying is, come playoff time, the regular season counts for nothing more than that one extra home game against your opponent. It's all about matchups. Dallas won 67 games last season and lost in the first round to another 8 seed, the Warriors, because they simply didn't matchup well against Nellie's breakneck speed offense and prolific 3-pt shooting.
They worked for every ball with guys like Andris Biedrins inhaling rebounds. Players like Matt Barnes stepped up like no one could've imagined and provided that little bit of extra to push them past the finish line. And they had a talismanic leader in Baron Davis, a player that no one player on the Mavs could stop, supplemented by Stephen Jackson's timely perimeter shooting.

The Hawks present a similar challenge to the Celtics. They have finally found their sea legs, or playoff legs, in two games at home in Atlanta, and more importantly they've found a formula to beat the Celtics that they have yet to find an answer for. Al Horford is playing beyond his years as a rookie in his first playoff series and is consistently beating Perkins and Garnett at their own game and cleaning up on the boards. They're getting unexpected production from Josh Childress, especially on the boards, and a particularly unexpected emotional boost off the bench from Zaza Pachulia. Bibby is finally letting the game come to him, scoring 18 on only 8 shots and managing the game like a true point guard should. Josh Smith is having a stellar playoff debut, the kind of series that cements you as a star in this league. He's making his free throws, leading the brilliant defensive effort by example (7 blocks!), and maybe most importantly providing a reliable 2nd scoring option to Joe Johnson. Most noticeably the entire team is playing with a degree of poise that just about everyone, including myself, didn't think they were capable of. The best part of it all is that the Celtics didn't even play poorly. The Big 3 combined for about 60 which almost always paves the way to victory for Boston.

I can honestly say, without exaggeration, that Joe Johnson's performance tonight was one of the great individual playoff performances I've seen in my lifetime. I know many will be reluctant to agree with this sentiment because it's just the Hawks, because it's just Joe Johnson, because they believe the Celtics will win out in the end anyway. I'm fine with that. The truth is Joe Johnson scored 35, 20 in the 4th quarter, on above 50% shooting, against the arguably the best defense in the league (statistically 2nd best) featuring the Defensive Player of the Year. Those are the numbers, those are the facts. But let's go beyond the numbers. I watched this game. I watched the 4th quarter. I watched as Joe Johnson toyed, teased, and tortured the Celtics with a vast arsenal of fakes, drives, floaters, fallaways, pullups, pivots, trey pounds (3 pointers for you lames), and when needed the vital dish to one of his teammates. They had no answer for him. For all of his offensive prowess, Ray Allen was helpless guarding Johnson and with the likes of Smith, Horford and Bibby on the floor the Celtics had their hands tied. Kind of reminded me of McGrady's series vs Detroit (1 vs 8 seed) back when he was with the Magic, simply unstoppable.

I'll say it again, it comes down to matchups. But it also comes down to belief and effort. Put simply, the Celtics can't stop Joe Johnson. If they double him there's still Josh Smith who can drive and finish or at least get to the free throw line at will. If they can replicate the effort they showed tonight on defense and on the boards and if coach Mike Woodson (who?) can manage the rotation and timeouts as well as he did, then it just comes down to belief. And they believe. Did you see the Georgian sensation Zaza Pachulia give Garnett that forehead-to-forehead love tap? Could you have ever imagined that happening watching the first two games in Boston? Then again, could you have ever imagined that According to Jim would still be on television? I think I've made my point.

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