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.