For the first time in several seasons at TD Garden, there was a hopeless feeling. The sold-out crowd came to use the Celtics as a diversion from recent events, a respite after difficult days. Instead, they were subjected to a team that was disorganized, inept, and frustrated.
If there was any doubts as to whether the Celtics were inferior to the New York Knicks before Game 3 of their Eastern Conference series Friday, they erased those with a pitiful performance in the 90-76 loss.
There have been plenty of times over the past five years when the Celtics were beaten by a better team, played to the level of their opponents, failed to show life, or, most notably in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, were dominated by LeBron James.
But Friday night was different. The Celtics were helpless, sometimes running the court as if they were auditioning for a Three Stooges remake. They were unable to get the ball over halfcourt without suspense. They missed open shots. They missed contested shots. They missed open teammates. They passed to covered teammates.
It was abysmal and for the first time in the Big Three era, the Celtics looked like a team that barely finished .500 and barely reached the postseason. They looked like a team that was playing more on tradition, relying on a brand that no longer intimidates. That was apparent in the second half, when the Knicks, who led by as many as 21, began laughing at the Celtics.
The Knicks know the tradition of this series. They know the Celtics have been the superior team for decades. They know the Celtics have won six world championships in the past 40 years. The Knicks have won none. So the ghosts of Frazier, Ewing, Starks, and King were seemingly present on the Knicks’ bench, urging their current brethren to beat the Celtics into green pulp.
New York did the same things it had done in the previous two games. The Knicks were the more aggressive team defensively and they never hesitated to attempt an open 3-pointer. Then, after the supporting cast sparked the offense in the early going, Carmelo Anthony walked in and finished the job.
It was a disheartening way to end an emotional evening. The Celtics, regardless of those Boston Marathon tragedy heroes honored before the game and after the first quarter, were hardly prepared for the challenge of winning against a team that does not fear them.
The Celtics have lost their power of intimidation, a moment that occurred in Game 6 against the Heat. Until then, the Celtics possessed a decided home-court advantage. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were one of the league’s most potent 1-2 punches. The Garden was one of the most difficult places to play in the league. The Celtics owned a championship DNA.
That DNA is fading, so is the prowess of Pierce and Garnett, and so is the home-court advantage. Teams no longer consider this a difficult road stop. The Knicks were slightly daunted by the Celtics before the series, but that anxiety is gone. What’s bizarre is that the Celtics have lost their way, despite feeling they could compete with the Knicks, who haven’t proven they could win in the postseason with this current group.
“You know, I was surprised. I thought we were a team that matched up really well with the Knicks,” Pierce said. “I thought we played them pretty good throughout the season. We lost a couple close ones, but I didn’t expect this coming in.
“I knew this would probably be a long series being the way we matched up, so I am surprised we are down 0-3 right now.”
The demoralizing part is the Celtics, while without their All-Star point guard and top rookie reserve, should be better. They have Pierce and Garnett. They chased Courtney Lee in the offseason. They signed Jason Terry over Ray Allen. They re-signed Brandon Bass. Avery Bradley is one of the league’s emerging defenders. They expect better from themselves and they should.
The sold-out crowd expected better, regardless if Rajon Rondo was in the lineup on sitting on the bench wearing horn-rimmed glasses. The Celtics should be ashamed because, not only are they being beaten, they are losing their confidence and failing to execute.
They came out with a strut in Game 1, lost the game with a putrid fourth quarter. They played a sparkling first half in Game 2 and then lost focus in the third quarter. On Friday, they never had focus or passion. They played like a team that knows the end is near, and that premonition may occur Sunday, when the Knicks will certainly search for the first sign of weakness and then relentlessly attack.
The Celtics have one chance Sunday to show they are not this flimsy. But, honestly, no one in that locker room knows what to expect, and that’s the sign of a team that has lost its faith.