Boston Keeps First Round Interesting

All we heard throughout the second half of the NBA season was how the West was wide open, six or seven teams are capable of making the finals, prepare for the most competitive playoffs ever. Well, we’re waiting. After tonight every Western Conference 1st Round series may finish – all in 5 games or less. So much for those classic playoff battles from the start. In fact, only two opening round series are guaranteed to extend past five games, the two least likely when the playoffs began – Detroit-Philadelphia and Boston-Atlanta.

In last night’s Game Four in Atlanta, Joe Johnson did what the heralded Celtics Big Three could not – take over a tight playoff game down the stretch and hit clutch shots. Possession after possession Johnson stepped up while Boston tightened up, finishing with 35 points on the night. Atlanta tied the series at two games apiece by outscoring Boston 32-17 in the fourth quarter.

Initial concerns about Boston this season evaporated during the 66-win campaign, now they may return. Neither Pierce, Garnett, or Allen has ever excelled in the playoffs. No championships, more disappoints and defeats than success. Another question – who gets the ball when the team needs a basket? Last night, nobody wanted the ball. Nobody stepped up. The trio combined for 59 points, but in the playoffs they need to do whatever is necessary to win. If it means scoring 80 combined, that’s what they have to do. In Game 4 they were not prepared. The offense lacked flow in the fourth quarter, settling for long shots, turnovers, no leadership. Sam Cassell, brought in just for these type of moments, when teams need veteran leadership, played only 6 minutes the entire game.

The vaunted defense that dominated the NBA all season,led by Defensive Player of the Year Kevin Garnett, was a figment of the imagination late in the game. Unable to stop Johnson, Rivers called for double teams to slow him down. Late arrivals, and slow rotations led to defensive breakdowns. Inside, uber-athletic Josh Smith continued to put double-doubles, showing no fear of Garnett. Smith and Johnson played so well, Atlanta won without a major offensive contribution from rookie Al Horford, who threw a few verbal jabs toward Paul Pierce after a solid effort in Game Three.

No question Atlanta has talent, Johnson and Smith are All-Star caliber, Horford emerged as a top rookie, Bibby is the veteran leader, along with Marvin Williams and Josh Childress, both capable scorers. Youth, inexperience, and lack of discipline slow this team down. Boston is clearly the better team, even tied at two, the Celts hold an immense advantage with home court. However, if the free wheeling Hawks keep it close, will Boston tighten up under the pressure, and who will hit that big shot?

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