Did the Celtics peak too early?

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Did the Celtics peak too early?

Back on April 11, the Celtics were arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference.

That's not to say it was an easy argument, but with the way they were playing, you had to least consider the possibility: Can the C's actually make it back to the Finals?

The night before, they'd beaten Miami convincingly for the second time in a row. This, after sweeping a weekend back-to-back against the Pacers and Sixers. And now, Boston was home against the Hawks (and the refs) for their fourth game in five days against the No. 2, 3, 5 and 6 seeds in the East. With their gritty 88-86 overtime win over Atlanta, the C's went four-for-four.

At this point, it was clear that they could hang with anyone in the conference except for maybe the Bulls. But there was one King Hippo-sized question mark hanging over Chicago's head: Derrick Rose.

The MVP had missed 13 of the last 14 games, and had battled an assortment of injuries since the very start of the season. With Rose at his best, the Celtics had no shot, but with the playoffs fast approaching, there was reason to question if he'd get there. Even without Rose, Chicago would be a handful, but like I said before, his potential absence was enough to make you wonder: Can the Celtics actually make it back to the Finals?

Then the lights went out.

The very next game, Friday the 13th for some weird reason, the C's dropped a 84-79 decision to Toronto's third string starters, and from there the regular season ceased to matter. The Celtics chose health and rest over home court and momentum. And even though they finished on a 5-2 run, it was awkward, empty and disjointed. There were no, as Doc would say, real "team building" games in there.

But that was the design. It was the same thing that happened in 2010, when at some point Doc had seen enough and decided: "OK, that's a wrap. Everyone go home, get healthy and we'll pick this back up in the playoffs."

In 2010, it worked. The playoffs started and the Celtics didn't miss a beat. And with that memory fresh on our minds, most of us expected 2012 to play out the same way. When the Celtics landed in Atlanta, we anticipated that Celtics team from early April. Back when Kevin Garnett never felt better, and was moving, running and jumping more freely than at any point since his injury. When Paul Pierce was fresh off winning the Eastern Conference Player of the Month (which means little, but says a lot). When Rajon Rondo was dominating games without taking a shot. When Avery Bradley and Ray Allen were co-existing, and Doc was seamlessly mixing them into the rotation. When the Celtics peaked and forced themselves back into the rank of Eastern Conference contenders.

That's why just about everyone picked them to beat the Hawks in round one. That's why, after Rose's ACL injury, we spent the weekend excitedly throwing around that same question: Can the Celtics actually make it back to the Finals?

And that's why most of us are still in a little shock over what happened.

Not that the Celtics lost because let's be honest, there's no real shame in losing Game 1 on the road but more how they lost. What they looked liked. With Kevin Garnett's hip flexor clearly holding him back. With Pierce and his bad toe struggling through an awful performance. With Rondo and his sore back never taking it to that supreme Rondo level, before getting thrown out of the game (and potentially Game 2). With Avery Bradley looking a little overwhelmed and Ray Allen not there at all. With the team putting forth the kind of overall ugly effort that we thought they'd left on the floor in OKC, when whatever clicked clicked and this team officially became a team.

Last night in Atlanta, we expected the very best from the Celtics.

We got the worst.

Of course, the silver lining is that it can only get better. That there's still reason to believe last night's loss was merely the price Boston had to pay for scaling down the intensity and pacing themselves for the playoffs. That maybe now they're awake, and will come out on Tuesday ready, loose and capable of competing at the level they need.

Can the Celtics actually make it back to the Finals?

Sure they can. We know that team is in there somewhere.

April 11 is not that long ago.

But for a group that spent the last two weeks getting rested and healthy, the Celtics didn't look much of either on Sunday night. And down 1-0, with Rondo likely to miss the next game, they've certainly dug themselves an early hole.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

At the half: Sixers applying pressure early and often against the Celtics

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At the half: Sixers applying pressure early and often against the Celtics

The Celtics are getting more than they bargained for against the Philadelphia 76ers who are once again, record-wise, among the worst teams in the NBA.

They didn’t look like it in the first half which ended with the Celtics trailing the Sixers 53-45.

Boston came into the game having won its last four road games. And they did so by playing solid defense, something that has been noticeably absent in the first half.

Philadelphia came into the game as one of the NBA’s better 3-point shooting teams and has lived up to the lofty ranking.

In the first half Philadelphia made nine of its 18 three-point attempts while the Celtics are way, way, way at the other end of the 3-point shooting spectrum while missing eight of their 11 3s with Isaiah Thomas making a pair with the lone other made 3-pointer coming from Marcus Smart.

The defense struggled, the offense never had any kind of flow and not surprisingly, the Celtics found themselves playing from behind most of the first half.

Here are the first half stars from Saturday’s game.

STARS

Sergio Rodriguez: His playmaking was solid as usual, but it was Rodriguez getting it going with his jumper that really produced surprisingly strong results for the Sixers. He had 11 points, four assists and a steal in the first half.

Isaiah Thomas: Playing his game which is shooting and attacking the rim, Thomas was Boston’s lone double-digit scorer in the first half with 15 points which is tops among all players.

STUDS

Dario Saric: It was a solid first half as Saric contributed both on the boards and the scoreboard. He had 10 points in the first half along with five rebounds.

Gerald Henderson: Henderson had one of those high efficiency-type games with 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting.

DUDS

Celtics 3-point shooting: It was a miserable first half for a team that has been among the NBA’s leaders in 3-pointers made and taken this season. At the half, Boston has shot 2-for-10 on 3's.

Celtics defense: Boston has shown little to no signs of providing the kind of push-back they’ll need in order to leave Philly with a win. In addition to allowing Philadelphia to shoot 47.4 percent from the field, Boston also allowed the Sixers to knock down nine 3's.

Thomas becoming one of the NBA's best in the fourth quarter

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Thomas becoming one of the NBA's best in the fourth quarter

Isaiah Thomas has established himself as one of the NBA’s top players in the fourth quarter of games this season.

“I’d rather play that than any other quarter,” Thomas said.

But there will be times when the game’s flow or head coach Brad Stevens’ gut will tell him to go in a different direction with Thomas’ minutes which is something the two have had conversations about which has helped eliminate any confusion or misunderstandings.

“We’ve had player-coach talks, how he feels and how I feel,” Thomas said. “That’s the relationship we have. We changed it up a little bit (in the win over Sacramento) and I’m just happy we got the win.”

In that game, Thomas was replaced by Terry Rozier with 3:20 to play in the quarter and Boston trailing 66-63. He returned to the floor at the 8:31 mark and the Celtics were down 76-74.

“The key is, there are some times where you feel like those last few minutes of the third quarter will be real important moving forward,” Stevens told reporters prior to tonight’s game. “Especially based on how your team is playing. And you just have to make that decision. You have to make that decision, you take him out early in the third like we did (against Sacramento) and put him back in earlier; or play him through until the two or one-minute mark in the third, and then give him his rest up until the seven or six. Either way, we’ve talked about it like I do with all our guys, especially the guys that are playing and big in the rotation.

Stevens would love to come up with a game plan and stick to it with little to no changes being made.

But the NBA game is unpredictable and his job as the head coach is to make the necessary on-the-fly changes that best position the Celtics for victory.

“Ultimately there will be days that it will be very consistent and there might be a time or two where I’m gonna go with my gut,” Stevens said. “They know that and we’ve talked about it.”

And while Stevens’ decision may not sit well with some, players understand it’s all done to achieve one goal – win. 

“There’s a number of reasons why you make a decision to leave someone in or take someone out,” Stevens said. “Ultimately, we have to figure out game to game, moment to moment, what’s best for our team. That’s what I’m charged with. That doesn’t mean I’m always right. I’m not gonna act like that. Ultimately, those guys know I’m thinking about it all the time.”