There is a strange precedent for a Celtics collapse
Given the Celtics regular season accomplishments, logic and common sense suggested they would cruise to at least an Eastern Conference championship and most probably an NBA Championship. And yet they are somehow tied 2 games a piece with one of the worst playoff qualifiers in modern NBA history. It defies explanation.
Greatest Modern Upset?
If the Hawks win this first round series, and under the pre-1993 format they would be on the brink of doing so, it would have to go down as the biggest upset in modern professional basketball history.
The only other recent upset that even enters the neighborhood would be the 42-40 Denver Nuggets over the 63-19 Seattle Supersonics in 1993-94. But that year Denver was at least an above .500 team with a pythagorean record that suggested they were better than their record. Plus, the Sonics were coached by George Karl, so they played the sort of no-defense style that historically leaves you susceptible to being upset.
This year's Celtics are 66-16 while the Hawks are 37-45, with a pythagorean that suggests they performed a game worse than their record. Its just bizarre.
Searching the Archives
Or maybe not. I went back to the 1954-55 season looking for anything similar to the Celtics struggles with the lowly Hawks. In doing so, I uncovered some irony. There is only one team in NBA history that won 65+ games in a single season and did not win the NBA Championship. Guess which team it was, and guess which team knocked them out. You won't be surprised.
The Closest Historical Precedents
1961-62: The 62-18 Boston Celtics were taken to 7 games by the 40-40 Philadelphia Sixers, but the Celtics prevailed.
1969-70: The Phoenix Suns were 39-43 and in their second season of existence when they took the 46-36 Jerry West-Wilt Chamberlain Los Angeles Lakers to 7 games. The result was a larger surprise than the records indicate because the Lakers were without Wilt Chamberlain for most of the season until the playoffs. So when they met the Suns in the playoffs, the Lakers were much closer to the 55-27 team they were a year earlier.
1972-73: Here is the closest precedent to this year's events, and it must provide an eerie feeling of deja vu for Celtic fans. The 68-14 Boston Celtics did not win the NBA Championship, because they were eliminated in the conference semifinals by the 46-36 Atlanta Hawks.