Celtics send Hawks packing — again

Published on May 11 at 1:45 a.m. Eastern.

By Brian Edwards

In 1988, 2008 and now again in 2012, the Boston Celtics have sent the Atlanta Hawks packing from the playoffs in gut-wrenching fashion. On Thursday night in Beantown, the C’s captured an 83-80 win in a deciding Game 6.

Atlanta covered the spread as a 6 ½-point underdog, but money-line wagers in the plus-280 range (risk $100 to win $280) were losers. The 163 combined points stayed ‘under’ the 174-point total.

Al Horford, the two-time national-title winner at Florida who was playing in just his third game after missing four months with a torn pectoral muscle, brought the Hawks storming back from a nine-point deficit and into a three-point lead with 2:27 remaining. Horford, who carried his team to a Game 5 win, wouldn’t touch the ball on the next two possessions that were so horrible, yet so typical.

After Boston trimmed the deficit to one on a Paul Pierce layup, the next Atlanta possession consisted of zero passes and about 20 dribbles from Jeff Teague, who missed a wild lefty runner in the lane. Next, Joe Johnson missed a low-percentage perimeter jumper.

When you’ve been following the Hawks since the days of Dan Roundfield, you KNEW what was coming next. Kevin Garnett, who was a beast all night with 28 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots, made a smooth turnaround jumper in the paint for an 80-79 advantage.

With the season on the line with nine ticks left, Josh Smith caught the ball on the right wing as the shot clock hit six seconds remaining. This was THE moment for Smith to show how much he’s matured over his tumultuous eight-year career that’s known just as much for his unbelievable athleticism and ability to dominate as it is for poor shot selection and terrible decision-making.

Once again, Smith took the wrong path. In the words of the great Bill Raftery, he settled. As in, Smith settled for a jumper on the most important possession of the season. Yes, he’s made that shot at a decent percentage all year long and yes, he was playing on an injured knee and hell yes, he wasn’t getting the benefit of the whistles in his one-on-one matchups with KG.

But those are excuses. When you have Smith’s physical gifts, you take the ball to the rim at crunch time. It’s not even debatable. It’s a no-brainer.

When the shot predictably missed, you know Mike Woodson was shaking his head somewhere in New York City. The Hawks still had a chance, however.

Ray Allen made only 1-of-2 free throws, extending the lead to 81-79. On the ensuing possession, Joe Johnson penetrated and appeared to get hammered by Pierce, who blocked the shot out of bounds with three ticks left. Smith made a beautiful entry pass from the sideline to Horford, who got fouled (somewhat flagrantly) by Marquise Daniels.

Horford was going to the charity stripe with the chance to sink two and tie the game. He was also playing in his 46th minute 48 hours after logging 41 minutes in Game 5. His first attempt went in and out. The second free throw was nothing but nylon, but the obvious strategy was to purposely miss the shot and hope for a tip-in. It was unclear if Horford was or wasn’t trying to make the shot.

Whatever the case, Pierce was sent back to the line for two shots with 1.3 seconds remaining. After making the first, his strategy should have been to purposely miss to make Atlanta heave a 90-footer at the buzzer. But Pierce made it to give the Hawks a chance for a Tate-George-Like Moment (UConn buzzer shot to beat Clemson in 1990 Sweet 16).

But that didn’t happen. Teague couldn’t even get off a desperation attempt. The Hawks lost to the Celtics – again. They still haven’t been to the Eastern Conference finals since the franchise moved to Atlanta. They lost a series when Ray Allen missed Games 1 and 2, and Rajon Rondo got suspended for Game 2. They dropped Game 2 despite leading by 11 early in the fourth quarter and came up short in overtime in Game 3.

They are the Hawks, after all.

Fittingly, Boston will advance to meet No. 8 seed Philadelphia, which stunned the top-seeded Bulls, who are without star player Derrick Rose. If Atlanta pulls out Game 6, it likely would’ve been favored to win Game 7 back at Philips Arena.

If the Hawks would’ve advanced, they would’ve faced the 76ers (perhaps with Zaza Pachulia back in the mix) with the chance to get to the East finals. But those are ‘if’s that mean absolutely nothing.

There will be a strong urge to bust this Hawks nucleus up with the thinking being that they’ve reached their ceiling. They’ve gone to the playoffs five consecutive years, losing in the first round to Boston twice (in seven games in 2008, in six in 2012) and going down in the second round twice.

When former Atlanta GM Pete Babcock came to the conclusion that the nucleus of Steve Smith, Mookie Blaylock and Co. had reached its ceiling after getting swept by the Knicks in a second-round series in 1999, the results were disastrous.

Smith was sent to Portland for J.J. Rider, whose tenure in the ATL was nothing short of an unmitigated horror story. The Hawks would miss the postseason for seven straight years.

Is that the type of drought that excites a fan base? Hell no! The team is stuck with Joe Johnson for four more years regardless because his contract makes him impossible to trade. Horford is fortunately locked up for four more years.

Smith is going into the final year of his contract, so there will be plenty of discussion about his future. But will a team be willing to give up equal value for Smith if it isn’t guaranteed to sign him to a long-term deal? If you aren’t going to get equal value in return, do you keep Smith and risk losing him in 2013-2014 and beyond?

GM Rick Sund has done an outstanding job during his tenure with the Hawks. He’s stuck by this nucleus of Johnson, Horford, Marvin Williams and Pachulia that have now played in eight playoff series. Sund added a very nice piece through the draft in Teague, who might develop into an All-Star at some point.

All five of these players are under contract for next season. The rest of the roster is completely up in the air. Sund has always done a solid job of filling out the bench with inexpensive veterans and there’s no reason to think he won’t do so again.

Even though there’ll be a uproar for change from sports radio in Atlanta and the AJC, Sund should only tinker with his personnel. Smith had his best year and is still just 26 years young. The team went 40-26 during the regular season despite a slew of injuries, including the loss of Horford just 13 games into the season.

Now certainly, the overall attitude of the team needs to change. Horford is the only killer this team has. Johnson is never going to be a fiery guy or an emotional leader. Smith, Teague and Horford are still improving, though.

This is still a nucleus that has finished in the top five of the East for five straight seasons. That sounds a helluva lot better than whatever results will come of trading Smith, Williams and essentially bringing in eight new players around Horford, Johnson, Teague and Pachulia.

Sund should stay the course for one more year and maybe – just maybe – Smith won’t settle and the results will be different.

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