EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 24, 2008

Mismatch made in heaven


On Pro Basketball

Bill Burt

BOSTON — Welcome to Boston, Mike Bibby.

On a team loaded with kids, at least in NBA terms, it was an alleged "cagey" veteran, with more NBA pedigree than every player on the floor combined, who obliterated any small chance of a good game last night.

The day before, Bibby called Celtics fans front-runners and bandwagon jumpers.

Now if he said that about Bruins fans, 18,000 Greater Bostonians probably would have bought it. This week, the Bruins went from fighting the New England Revolution for support to nearly becoming a major attraction again.

Bibby, the oldest regular on the Hawks at 29, was supposed to be the calming influence Atlanta needed. Acquired by the Hawks on Feb. 16 in a trade with the Sacramento Kings, he has been just that for most of the last 10 weeks.

The Hawks average age of 24.2 years old is third youngest in the league. They have the foundation of some good young talent with Joe Johnson (26), Al Horford (21) and Josh Smith (22) to work with.

But Bibby paid dearly for his insinuation.

"He doesn't know these fans because they were here rooting for us last year when we were losing 18 in a row," said Bibby's counterpart at point guard, Rajon Rondo. "Sure, we have more fans now, but they've always been supportive. I know they've been supportive of me."

Bibby's comments had nothing to do with the result, a relatively easy 96-77 win. These Celtics are in a refuse-to-lose mode, Big Three or no Big Three, but Bibby's mouth basically laid the foundation for a very uncomfortable evening.

In the 25 years I've been in this business, I have never seen a player razzed like he was last night.

"It was 48 minutes of hell (for him)," said Hawks rookie, Acie Law, another player with decent upside in this league. "He heard it the entire game, whether he was on the floor or on the bench."

The fans didn't relent. Every time he touched the ball he heard boos, very loud boos. While he made 8 of 10 free throws, the two he missed were bricks.

When Bibby was relegated to the bench for what seemed like an entire quarter, fans demanded Bibby's return.

"We want Bibby!"

One chant, "Rondo is better!" was particularly biting and hard-hitting.

"I heard it," said Rondo. "Like I said, these fans have always been great to me. It was nice to hear, I guess. But it didn't faze me."

The man of the hour didn't pull back any of his comments about Celtics fans after last night's debacle.

"I'm upset that I didn't help my team," said Bibby, whose cousin coincidentally coached and is credited with developing Rondo in high school in Louisville, Ky. "If the fans took offense to what I said that's their problem."

Bibby finished with 12 points and only one disappointing assist. That credit, Bibby said, belongs to the Celtics defense.

"That's what we have to figure out, their ball-side defense was very tough," said Bibby. "We have to look at film and find ways to beat it. I don't know how, but I'm sure the coaches will look at the film and we'll work on it."

The Hawks, especially the youngsters, got a taste of playoff basketball and an organization that prides itself with, well, its pride.

"They are crazy," said Josh Smith, who had 12 points and eight rebounds, of the Celtics fans. "You could tell (last night) that the regular season is nothing like the playoffs."

We really owe a debt of gratitude to Bibby. He made a potentially ho-hum night a rather enjoyable and interesting one.

"I hope our fans were watching," said Smith. "We are going to need them to be like the Celtics fans were tonight. The Celtics play with a lot of energy. They fed off it."

The odds are the Hawks won't be returning to Boston any time soon.

That might be a good thing for Bibby.

E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.