If you only watched Game 7 of the Boston Celtics-Atlanta Hawks series, you'd have to conclude that the Celtics are a spectacularly great basketball team, even if you knew that the Hawks are a 37-win bunch that really didn't have much business in the playoffs.
You could even have that idea if you'd seen Games 1, 2 and 5 as well.
The Celtics won that final game Sunday 99-65, and the old joke here would be that the game wasn't as close as that score would indicate, but this is one of those times it wouldn't fit because the Celtics never coasted. They poured it on, playing as though it were a tie game long after the Hawks spit the bit, which they did early in the third quarter when Marvin Williams tackled Rajon Rondo on a breakaway and was ejected.
It was almost as if the best team in the league, the 66-game winners, had something to prove.
Maybe that had something to do with the three losses the Hawks handed them in Games 3, 4 and 6, the three in Atlanta. Those games earned Boston entry in the exclusive club of teams that have been beaten three times this year by the Hawks. The other members are the Miami Heat, the New York Knicks and the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Sixers made a little Hawklike noise of their own against the No. 2 seed in the East, the Detroit Pistons, winning Games 1 and 3 of that series and leading at halftime of Game 4 before the Pistons woke up and notched three straight wins.
So what's going on here? Is it that the Eastern Conference powers aren't all that powerful, that reports of the closing of the gap between the conferences were premature?
Yes and no on the latter. Eastern Conference teams went 192-258 against the West this year, one game worse than last year, but the Celtics went 25-5 and the Pistons 22-8, both way better than the most successful team in the conference against the West last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers, who went 19-11. So while you can still say that Boston and Detroit's regular-season record was padded a bit by playing in the weak conference, you can't say they wouldn't have been powers if they played in the West.
But that leaves the first question. Did the Hawks show up the Celtics as 66-win frauds?
Eh, probably not. The Celtics can be beaten. They're still a team centered on three stars in their 30s, and if the shots aren't falling for Ray Allen and Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett isn't as aggressive as he should be, they can get into trouble. But those things don't often happen on the same night, and even when they do, the Celtics have depth and play excellent defense. There's a lot to beat there.
I've been thinking all along that the Pistons, who beat the Orlando Magic in Game 1 of their second-round series, are going to beat them. They'd meet in the conference finals if they meet. But, closing of the gap be damned, I'd take any of the four living teams in the West -- the Los Angeles Lakers lead the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Hornets lead the San Antonio Spurs, both 1-0 -- over anybody in the East.
Even after the Celtics' utter destruction of the 37-win Hawks.