Fantastic? Not yet

The Baltimore Sun

The big showdown in the new Boston Garden yesterday ended up being the entire first round of the NBA playoffs in a nutshell. Game 7 of the Boston Celtics vs. Atlanta Hawks was a dud.

What happened? The playoffs have rarely been this eagerly anticipated; they weren't going to sneak up on anybody the way the past two have. After a regular season some called the best in league history, with all eight Western Conference qualifiers winning at least 50 games and with every seed up for grabs going into the final five days, this year's playoffs were going to pick up where the regular season left off, and jump up and grab everybody from the opening tip of the very first game.


This next round doesn't exactly have a high bar to clear. Nary an upset in the first round, and the one time a favorite was in actual peril, the Celtics yesterday pulled the Hawks' pants down and spanked the fresh-mouthed youngsters in full view of a national audience.

Still, the 66-win Celtics didn't exactly polish their championship credentials in that series, never mind the 34-point margin in Game 7. All they really did was plant some fresh, unforeseen doubt in the conference that was supposed to be the snoozer, after the conference with all the delicious tension laid a big egg. Who predicted that the 37-win team from the lame side of the bracket would make the most noise, and the 50-win team with two All-Stars, the Denver Nuggets, would make the least?

The sweep of the No. 1 seed vs. No. 8 was supposed to go Boston's way, certainly not the Los Angeles Lakers'. With the Lakers and Nuggets, and every other West series, anything could happen, right? Then the Lakers took out the broom on the Nuggets (who probably couldn't have held the broom to fewer than 20 points, either). The rest of the series ended in, respectively, five, five and six games, all wins by the higher seeds.

Fortunately, we're left with two potential nail-biters in the West semifinals, with the Lakers facing the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Hornets playing the San Antonio Spurs. Unfortunately, we all said the same thing about the first round.

But did anything encouraging come out of that first round, besides the fact that after 16 days, it's finally over? Well ...

The Finals the entire basketball-watching world is praying for, Celtics-Lakers, is still on track. Sort of. As long as Boston figures out how to win on the road, because it couldn't do it against an Atlanta team with the most tepid home-court advantage in the league, maybe in any of the major sports. Good luck in Cleveland in this round -- and, if the Celtics get that far, in Auburn Hills, Mich., in the East finals. If the Pistons get that far, considering how they slept through major portions of the Philadelphia 76ers series and the first half of the opener of the semifinal against the Orlando Magic.

It's worth repeating every postseason: The NBA isn't using the officials to engineer matchups, and refs aren't trying to protect stars. The whistle-blowers are just really, really bad at what they do. Incompetence, not fraud. Problem is, they've done nothing so far to debunk the old theories. Case in point: exactly one suspension has been handed out, to the Washington Wizards' Darius Songaila (against the Cavaliers' LeBron James; more on him later), for what was at best the fifth-most flagrant foul of that series.

Meanwhile, in Game 4 of the Celtics-Hawks series, players literally went face-to-face, Kevin Garnett shoved a ref, and at least one player from each team left the bench to get a better view -- and no league discipline. Consistent application of punishment -- what's that?

The Wizards are gone, which pleases those who tired quickly of their nonstop LeBron-baiting. But in exiting, they provided a valuable service -- they showed it's disturbingly easy to get under King James' skin. The same for his coach, Mike Brown, who begged for calls like the guys begging for spare change downtown, expressing daily and nightly his belief that James is not only the epitome of American manhood, but also the greatest victim of injustice since Nelson Mandela was released.

It all helped make the Cavs the postseason's nails-on-the-chalkboard team. If the D.C. crowd pushed Cleveland's buttons, what do you think is in store for it in Boston?

Of course, that's a question we all can ask about the entire remaining NBA postseason. What's in store for us? Should we hope for the best? And what do we do if, as in the first round, we don't get it?

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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