As underdog stories go, this one sure doesn't add up.
2008 NBA playoffs
- Pistons hammer Magic in opener
- Hornets rally vs. Spurs in Game 1
- Kahn: Why Celts are facing Game 7
- Rosen: Cavs advance, Wiz crumble
- Hench: East is where action is
- Rosen: Pistons find another gear
- Kahn: Deadline deals were duds
- Hill: Suns should keep D'Antoni
- Kahn: End of an era in Phoenix
- Rosen: Suns' fun-'n'-gun done?
- Western Conference playoff central
- Eastern Conference playoff central
- Best shots from the first round
- Playoff preview: Spurs-Hornets
Only three teams in the last 20 years have entered the playoffs with a worse regular-season record than the Atlanta Hawks' 37-45 effort this season. Only five in the same time span have entered with better records than the 66-16 Boston Celtics and three of them were Michael Jordan's Bulls.
The Celtics won the first five meetings between these teams this season, cruising by an average of 16.6 points per game. Boston has the best road record and second-best home record of any playoff team. Atlanta is worst on the road and tied for second-worst at home.
Do the math and it's hard to understand how, just four games later, the Celtics' season rides on one of the NBA's most significant single contests.
Consider what's at stake in Sunday's improbable Game 7:Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen's self-esteem: They came to Boston to join up with Paul Pierce and form an ironclad trio of players favored to win their first NBA title. Garnett suffered through seven years of first-round playoff exits in Minnesota. Allen's time in Milwaukee and Seattle wasn't much better. Now, they're staring at another first-round elimination game that should never have happened.Doc Rivers' reputation: Job security wasn't at its peak for the Celtics coach at the end of last season. Now he's been handed a dream team and is one game away from orchestrating an epic choke against the team that drafted him out of Marquette in 1983. Of all the heat he's taken, nothing would match the furor if Boston ends up watching round two from home.The Hawks' relevancy: Led by a dynamic scorer in Joe Johnson who came over from Phoenix in a sign-and-trade in 2005, a veteran point guard in Mike Bibby sent over from the rebuilding Kings this season, and a fiery rookie in Al Horford, Atlanta is a patchwork team that may be coming together at just the right time to restore some life to this near-forgotten franchise. A win Sunday earns them a spot in sports lore.The NBA's popularity: If your metric is TV ratings, the NBA needs a Lakers-Celtics final. In a league where over half the teams qualify for the postseason, many have grown weary of sub-.500 squads proving to be little more than first-round practice dummies for the top seeds. Now we have the 37-win Hawks pushing the league's best to the brink and jeopardizing the Dream Finals. A Hawks victory might win over the fickle David-and-Goliath lovers, but the East playoffs would lose its most compelling team.
Few outside of Georgia will pick the upstart Hawks in this Game 7. Atlanta is 0-for-the-season in Boston. The Celtics are the decidedly better team. If you replayed the series finale 100 times, Boston would win some amount greater than 90.
The numbers are stacked against the Hawks, but they've been that way all series. If Atlanta can defy the scoresheet for one more night, the immediate future of the NBA will need a drastic revision.
It doesn't take much in basketball. One player getting hot and another going cold. A couple untimely turnovers. Unexpected foul trouble. Anything can turn an advantage into a weakness in no time.
It's only round one, but for the fans of the eighth-seeded Hawks one of 15 current NBA cities without a championship it might as well be the Finals.
For the Celtics, this is most definitely not the Finals. The damage has been done. The 57-win Lakers just made the 50-win Nuggets look silly in a 1-8 sweep out West. The other top West contenders the Spurs and Hornets only needed five games each to breeze by much tougher competition in the Suns and Mavs. Boston was supposed to do the same. This is a failure.
The Celtics will likely win Sunday. But even a 30-point wire-to-wire romp can't wash away the doubt that has formed. They'd still be the team that needed seven games to shake the Hawks.
Maybe this is just the Celtics' test, their bump in the road before they figure it all out. Or maybe it's a sign that this titleless group of superstars doesn't have what it takes to win as the competition gets tougher.
The only thing we know for sure: There will be no free pass to the championship. It just doesn't add up.
Zack Pierce is an editor for FOXSports.com.