If you define "playoffs" as that time of the basketball season when unrelenting effort and athletic excellence meets the ultimate in fan enthusiasm, then the playoffs finally began at The Omni last night.
The Knick series? Yeah, it was rugged, but the Knicks were so, you know, gimmicky. The Hawks are a bit more standard. They're coming at you with athletes piled on top of athletes, and they are coached well enough by Mike Fratello to elevate basketball pretty high in the ionosphere on their better nights. Last night was one of those occasions, and the Hawks rightly tied up this Eastern Conference semifinal series at two games apiece with a 118-109 triumph over the Celtics.
The Celtics were good in some departments and truly awful in others. They lost the game, but not in the fourth quarter when a 101-99 Atlanta lead with 7:31 left was expanded to an unreachable 109-99 deficit less than three minutes later. Rather, they lost it from the final minute of the first period right through halftime, when their sinful propensity for surrendering the basketball without getting a legitimate shot at the goal handed an Atlanta team that at that point was being outshot, outrebounded and outdefended, far too many gift scoring opportunities.
The Celtics wound up with 22 turnovers, good for 30 Atlanta points. Correspondingly, the Hawks gave it up 9 times for 6 Boston points. This is how you can squander 56 percent shooting and a rebound edge (41-36). Give a team such as Atlanta 23 more shots and you are asking for big trouble.
After a Larry Bird jumper from the key made it 38-28, Boston, with 51 seconds remaining in the first quarter, the Celtics suffered a horrifying relapse into the bad habits that had cost them Sunday's game. Boston turned it over on six of their next nine possessions. By that time the Hawks were in possession of a 43-40 lead and had regained any confidence they might have lost in the face of Boston's blistering (16-for-22) opening burst.
Atlanta led, 66-59, at the half and, as the Celtics hit a third-quarter cold spell, the lead escalated to 19 (88-69) with 4:48 remaining in the third quarter, by which time K.C. Jones had been bounced by Hugh Evans, and Reggie Lewis was on the floor because (a) Danny Ainge had injured his thigh in a collision with Tree Rollins on a drive to the hoop; (b) Jim Paxson had a bad back and didn't play, and (c) Dirk Minniefield had been such a disaster during his brief first-half stint the Celtics would have been better off playing with four men.
Well, guess what? Lewis played as if the Hawks were just another New Hampshire or Siena, popping in 8 quickies as the Celtics methodically carved away at the lead until a pair of free throws by Kevin McHale brought them within 2 at the 101-99 juncture, and oodles of time left to pull off the big finish.
But the NBA has had far more teams fated to be Sisyphus than Sir Edmund Hilary. Funny things happen to comebacking teams as they approach the summit. The Hawks discovered this in both Games 1 and 2.
"It's a lot easier to lose the lead and hang on to win than to cut that 18-point lead and go on to win the game," observed Doc Rivers, who was in the middle of so many Atlanta fast breaks that he wound up with 22 assists for a team playoff record.
The Celtics proceeded to go six consecutive possessions without scoring, starting with a missed McHale turnaround. Included in this damaging stretch were two offensive fouls and a technical on Danny Ainge. While all this was happening, the Hawks were expanding their lead to 109-99 on a Dominique Wilkins free throw, a Wilkins fourth-effort tap, the technical foul shot, a Kevin Willis corner jumper and, finally, a Wilkins spinning banker.
The Celtics had one last gasp left as Ainge first scored on a fast-break lefty three-point drive and then flung in a flying three-point bomb to make it 109-105 (3:06). But Rivers stuck a three-pointer from straightaway (while later admitting his foot was on the line, not that it really mattered to the outcome).
Atlanta's other heroes included Wilkins, who spun and whirled and banked his way to a classic, messy Dominique 40, and Spud Webb, who scored 9 consecutive Atlanta points when the team really needed them, starting with a three-pointer to end the third period and continuing with three consecutive answering jumpers at the outset of the fourth.
Given the momentum swings and the number of remarkable individual plays, this was, the Celtics' turnovers aside, one heck of a demonstration of NBA basketball.
"Both teams raised their level from the previous three games," said Fratello. "The teams answered each other's challenges. A basketball purist saw a great, great game."
The summation of it was that the Hawks stared down the Celtics at the moment of truth. However green your blood may be, you've got to appreciate that fact, and why when you're talking big-time basketball, you're talking only about the NBA.