Celtics’ Chances Have Increased, Yet Need to Bring “A” Game

Paul Pierce (left) must outplay Atlanta Hawks swingman Joe Johnson for the Celtics to be able to move past the opening round.

The championship window is still open for the Boston Celtics and the Big Three, which is why the Game 1 83-74 loss to the Atlanta Hawks was frustrating. The Celtics could’ve set the tone for the series with a quick start.

After Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose suffered a torn ACL with 1:20 left of the fourth quarter in the Bulls’ 103-91 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday, the Eastern Conference has become less predictable. The Celtics have been one of the hottest teams in the final month of the season after winning 16 of their last 22 games, including a 10-5 record in April. The Miami Heat, who is coming off a 33-point blowout of the New York Knicks in Game 1, is flawed and the Orlando Magic without Dwight Howard, were able to stage a final rally to steal the home- court advantage from the Indiana Pacers in the first game of their series.

While nobody wants to see anyone go down with significant injuries, the Rose situation has meant that the opportunity is there for the Celtics to contend for the Eastern Conference crown. If the Celtics are able to be healthy and they can get by the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the Celtics would play the winner of the Bulls/76ers series.

The Hawks will be a tough team for the Celtics to play in the first round because the Hawks are talented and they are hungry to stop being pushovers in the playoffs for teams like the Celtics. This was shown when the Hawks got off to a 20-6 lead in the first five minutes of Game 1. The Hawks were hustling to loose balls and getting by Celtics’ defenders for transition buckets. There is no telling how the Bulls will react after losing the MVP of the 2010-2011 season, but if the Bulls do get by the Sixers, the Celtics will be competing against a Rose-less team.

C.J. Watson is a capable point guard who filled in for Rose during the regular season when the oft-injured Rose missed 27 games, but the playoffs are a different beast. The Bulls still have Luol Deng, who is one of the most underrated players in the NBA. Deng is an exceptional defender and he has hurt the Celtics with his scoring this year. Joakim Noah can provide energy on the boards along with Carlos Boozer and both can pass extremely well in the frontcourt. Rip Hamilton is an experienced, battle-tested veteran. Without Rose, the Bulls have a large hole in their team.

The Celtics’ health is a concern, especially if Ray Allen cannot stay on the court because he provides scoring off the bench and is a big part of the team dynamic. While Allen is 36 years old, he gives the team clutch scoring and if the Celtics are facing a deficit late in the game, they could use Allen. Rajon Rondo is likely facing a suspension for Game 2 and possibly beyond for his chest bump of referee Marc Davis’s back over a questionable call in the final minute of the Celtics’ defeat to the Hawks. The ejection was just another case of Rondo’s immaturity and questions of whether Rondo can be a legitimate leader will persist.

The one reason to be optimistic for Celtics fans is Avery Bradley’s exceptional play in the absence of Allen and Mickael Pietrus for a stretch in late March and early April when Pietrus endured a concussion. Bradley’s off-ball movement and his improved outside shooting have lifted the Celtics on the offensive end while being able to pressure the ball and continue his stellar defensive play. Pietrus had a flare up in his surgically repaired knee in the final week of the regular season, but he came back for the finale against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Celtics could use Pietrus’ length on the defensive end and 3-point shooting.

The Celtics must regroup for Game 2 without their floor leader.  The rest of the team has to step up because this is the last shot for the core of doing what every other great Celtics player achieved in their careers, which was hoist multiple banners. Paul Pierce will be asked to not only perform better than he did in Game 1, but he will also be asked to distribute the ball for everyone else because the Celtics don’t have a replacement for Rondo.

With superstars like Howard and Rose down, the Celtics’ hopes increase greatly for them to get to a place nobody thought was possible just a month ago.

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