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

Celtics-Wizards preview: Making of a matchup

Celtics-Wizards preview: Making of a matchup

BOSTON -- While it’s debatable whether the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards are rivals, there’s no question there has been a heightened level of animosity towards one another when they play.

When these two met on Jan. 11, the Celtics came away with a 117-108 win.

But the game itself featured plenty of back-and-forth trash talk, finger-pointing, cries of dirty play and NBA fines.

IN FACT . . . Washington plans to bury Boston

“It’ll be a physical game,” said Jae Crowder who was hit with a five-figure fine for his role in a post-game incident involving Washington’s John Wall. “We have to answer the bell; we’ll be ready.”

Crowder knows he and his teammates must balance being the more physical team, with not losing their cool because if tonight’s game is anything like previous ones, there will be trash talk … lots of trash talk.

“They talk a little bit more than other teams,” said Crowder who added that was a factor in the incident him and Wall which cost them $25,000 and $15,000, respectively.

Crowder said a flagrant-foul committed by Washington’s Bradley Beal against Marcus Smart was what really cranked the level of animosity that was already at a high level.

But Beal probably hasn’t fully put behind him an incident last season in which Smart broke his nose and put him in the league’s concussion protocol program on a Smart drive to the basket.

As far as the hard foul that Beal delivered to him earlier this month, Smart said, “you take exception to every hard foul.”

Smart added, “It’s the game of basketball. You play with your emotions and intensity and everything like that. It comes with the game.”

While Crowder understands the Celtics have to play a physical brand of basketball, he’s not looking to do anything that might result in him having to cut another $25,000 check which was the amount of his fine from the Jan. 11 game against the Wizards.

“I’m looking at it as another game we have to win,” Crowder said. “I’m not looking at it as a rivalry or anything like that. I’m not coming in talking; they might.”

For the Wizards, winners in four of their five games since losing to Boston, a major key to their success lies in the play of their backcourt.

John Wall and Bradley Beal are the latest high-scoring backcourt tandem that the Celtics have to be worried about.

And making matters worse for Boston, the Celtics will have to try and make due without Avery Bradley who is still dealing with a right Achilles injury.

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said the 6-foot-2 Bradley was not going to be with the team in Washington and would most likely be out all this week.

That means Boston will lean heavily on Smart to not only help the offense run relatively smooth, but also provide some much-needed defense to help limit Wall and Beal who collectively rank among the higher-scoring starting backcourts in the NBA.

“We have to slow them down; by any means we have to slow them down,” Thomas said. “We know they go as far as those two take them. It’s going to be a tough game. They have a lot of momentum at home. It’ll be a tough game for us. But we’re ready for the opportunity.”

Wall and Beal are just the latest in a string of high-scoring backcourts that the Celtics have had to contend with recently.

In Saturday’s 127-123 overtime home loss to Portland, C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard combined to score 63 points on 20-for-42 shooting from the field.

“This stretch of backcourts is exceptionally difficult,” Stevens said. “They (Wall and Beal) both should be and certainly are in the discussion for the all-star team. It’s a real difficult challenge. Our guys are going to have to be really good on both ends of the floor.”

Wizards to Celtics: We're going to bury you

Wizards to Celtics: We're going to bury you

The last time Boston played at Washington, the Wizards buried them by 25 points.

It seems the Wizards have a similar mindset for Tuesday’s game which will feature every Wizards playing showing up in all-black.

“You know where we’re going with that,” Washington’s Kelly Oubre Jr. told the Washington Post’s Candace Buckner.

Yes.

We do.

But in case anyone wasn’t sure, let John Wall put the cookies on the bottom shelf for you and explain in succinct terms.

“A fun-er-ral!” he said with the man who thought this up, Bradley Beal, in the background yelling, “Yaa!”

The Celtics players acknowledged that Tuesday’s game would most likely be a physical, trash-talking affair.

That stems from their matchup two weeks ago that included a lot of physical play both teams that ultimately ended with the Celtics coming away with a 117-108 win.

ROUND ONE: THE JANUARY 11 GAME

Bradley Beal was whistled for a flagrant-one foul against Marcus Smart that seemed to get both benches hyped up.

Those two have a history dating back to last season when Smart, while driving to the basket, landed his left forearm across Beal’s face. The blow resulted in Beal’s nose being broken in addition to being put in the league’s concussion protocol program.

And after the Jan. 11 game, Jae Crowder and John Wall had a heated exchange of words that ended with Crowder’s pushing his finger into Wall’s nose, and Wall retaliating by slapping Crowder’s face.

The league fined Crowder $25,000 and Wall $15,000 for their roles in the incident.

“It’s going to be a competitive game,” Wall said. “Hopefully everybody just keep it clean and … makes it one of those great battles.”

Said Beal: “We want to keep it clean as much as possible but we know it’ll probably get chippy, a little trash talking.”

Isaiah Thomas, who was whistled for a technical foul in the Jan. 11 game, understands emotions will run pretty high in Tuesday’s game.

 “You just have to be ready for whatever comes our way,” Thomas said. “We’re not going to shy away from it. But we’re all human. There will probably be a little bit of physicality, a little bit of things to carry over to tomorrow’s game. But the most important thing is we just have to try and take care of business.”