by: John Tomase on Tue, 02/28/2017 - 12:58am

Dwight Howard and the Hawks slammed the Celtics on Monday. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)Ready for some tough love, Celtics fans? Your C's are stumbling toward another early playoff exit. Maybe this year it will be the second round instead of the first, but mark my words, it's coming.

If that sounds like doom and gloom for the East's No. 2 seed, it's time for a right hook of realism: the C's are no better equipped to win a postseason series now than they were a year ago.

On Monday, the Atlanta Hawks ripped a page from the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors, two playoff clubs that have manhandled the Celtics during recent wins. Atlanta got Olivia Newton-John levels of physical with the finesse-oriented Celtics, who folded en route to a 114-98 defeat that had broadcaster Mike Gorman basically humming The Shirelles', "Mama told me there'd be days like this," in the waning seconds.

"They punked us," guard Avery Bradley told reporters.

The book on the Celtics could be titled Fight Club, and the first rule of fixing it is talking about it. Beating the C's starts with beating them up. Toronto, buoyed by newcomers Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, pushed the Celtics all over the court after falling into a 17-point hole on Friday. The Raptors ended up winning by 10 not only because DeMar DeRozan pumped in a career-high 43, but because of their intensity.

The Raptors beat the Celtics to loose balls, outrebounded them 41-36, and blocked five shots. But even more disruptive -- and demoralizing -- was what they did to the offense, contesting simple dribble handoffs to keep the C's 25 feet from the basket.

The game turned when DeMarre Carroll leveled Isaiah Thomas on a first-half fast break. Thomas and Jae Crowder earned technicals, Carroll took a flagrant, and the C's never responded. Up double digits, they saw their lead evaporate within a quarter.

Thomas finished with 20 points on just 6-of-17 shooting, his .353 percentage tellingly in line with the .376 he has managed in 10 playoff games.

He looked even worse against the Hawks, shooting 4-of-19 (.211) while being harassed all over the court. Atlanta broke out last year's successful playoff formula, switching screens even miles from the basket and forcing Thomas either to surrender the ball or take a contested shot. He chose his share of Option B's, with terrible results.

The Cavaliers acted similarly two Aprils ago in a first-round sweep, limiting Thomas to just .333 shooting and 17.5 points a game. The Hawks followed suit and corralled him for all but a two-game explosion in the Garden, when he scored 42 and 28 to even the series. He shot just 3-for-12 in a 27-point Game 5 blowout, however, and then finished by going 9-for-24 in the deciding Game 6. That series, in the end, wasn't even close.

It looks increasingly likely that the Celtics are merely a regular season creation built to beat lesser teams with ball movement and hustle, and even some good ones if their 3s are falling. But once a legit opponent increases the pressure, the Celtics wilt, because they lack consistent offensive options beyond the wondrous Thomas. Bradley's return helps a bit, as does the continued emergence of No. 3 overall pick Jaylen Brown. But it's not nearly enough.

The C's wilted against the Bulls when things took a turn for the physical in the first-half finale. They wilted against the Raptors when push came to shove, shove, and shove some more over the weekend. And they wilted like last winter's peach blossoms on Monday while being outrebounded 55-40. Hawks center Dwight Howard earned a technical for pushing the invisible Al Horford, and the C's effectively turtled.

That's three games in four tries that have seen the Celtics unable to match playoff-style intensity. As things stand now, forget about the Cavaliers. The goal will be overcoming Toronto or Washington. And depending on how the standings break, the C's may not even receive the gift of Detroit or Miami in the first round. They could be staring at the 4-5 matchup with Atlanta again, though at least hosting this time.

Even the most ardent members of Team Keep the Picks shook our heads when Danny Ainge stood pat at the trade deadline. Tucker would've fit perfectly, given his blend of defense, rebounding, and 3-point shooting. The Celtics could use his toughness. We'd settle for free agent Andrew Bogut, though it's hard to imagine him choosing Boston over Cleveland.

Reality stings. The Celtics may top 50 wins, finish second in the East, and look like Cleveland's stiffest challengers. But don't let the record fool you. When the playoffs start, they'll once again find themselves being pushed all over the court. Thomas will struggle to breathe, the supporting cast will struggle to score, and we'll spend another summer wondering when, exactly, this team plans on learning how to hit back.