PORTLAND, Ore. — There were just too many slip-ups, too many open Wesley Matthews 3-pointers, too many wide-open lanes for Victor Claver to prance down for an offensive rebound.
The Celtics’ 92-86 loss Sunday to the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden offered every reason why they won’t have lasting power when it comes to the postseason. They had every chance to win, every opportunity for a run, and simply blew it.
And to exemplify the frustration, Kevin Garnett took a major tumble on the game’s pivotal play, when the Celtics had to score in the final 1:14 behind 3 points. With Garnett on the floor, the play was blown and Paul Pierce resorted to a long 3-pointer that missed.
Moments later, Matthews christened ’70s night at the Rose Garden with a step-back 3-pointer that sealed the game. The Celtics stared victory in the face and simply melted under the intensity, which is a discouraging sign.
The combination of Garnett and Pierce were 18-for-35 shooting and scored 43 points. The rest of the Celtics were 18-for-50 and scored 43 points. Garnett was surprisingly erratic after taking Friday’s victory over the Phoenix Suns off, but he still managed 20 points and nine rebounds.
The disappointing aspect of Sunday was that no one else responded to the challenge. Jeff Green, who scored a team-high 31 points Friday at Phoenix, came back with 11 in 31 minutes; the rest of the bench combined for 8 points on 3-for-14 shooting.
With Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger out, the Celtics have to do everything together. They can’t rely on Garnett and Pierce to carry them as if it was 2008. Garnett and Pierce were pleading for help, asking for Courtney Lee, Green, or Jason Terry to help out and their invitations were denied.
Terry scored just 4 points in 19 minutes, missing both 3-point attempts, while Lee produced one of his typical “Oh, I forgot he played” games with 5 points and little else in 26 minutes. Scoring is only one aspect of the game. Doc Rivers wouldn’t have minded if one of his guys chased down a couple of rebounds or produced a couple of defensive stops, either.
The Celtics have to win by committee, that’s just the way it is. The star power on this team is fading and until Rondo returns and team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge figures out a way to procure a rising star, the Celtics have to win collectively.
“It was one of those ‘my bad’ games,” Rivers said. “We had so many of them, of ‘my faults’ where we just lost sight of guys, offensive rebounds, we didn’t finish any quarter right. It was a gettable game but give them credit, [the Trail Blazers] made some big shots.”’
What’s more bewildering is the Trail Blazers had lost seven straight games, including a 99-63 defeat to New Orleans and a home loss to the Suns. Yet they were the ones who scored the game’s final 6 points, a conventional 3-point play from Damian Lillard when he drove against three Celtics for a layup and then Matthews’s difficult 3-pointer.
The Celtics are likely going to make the playoffs and the final 26 games will determine seeding and whether they are capable of a prolonged playoff run. Right now the answer is no. They don’t have enough playmakers down the stretch. They don’t have enough players willing to do the intangibles to win games.
Claver came off the Portland bench and plucked a career-high 10 rebounds in 20 minutes, just one fewer than the entire Celtics bench.
“I thought again when we needed [defensive] stops, we couldn’t get them,” Garnett said. “When we have a chance to turn the corner, we didn’t turn it. I thought we had opportunities to take advantage of [Portland mistakes], eight out of 10 times we didn’t do it. Small things man, small things. Your offense can’t dictate your defense and we just gotta make that an echo around here, until everybody gets it and so that it’s planted in you.”
That process could take weeks with the newcomers, who didn’t exactly make a splash. The duo of Terrence Williams and Jordan Crawford were a combined 1-for-8 shooting for 2 points and Crawford showed why he’s considered so erratic.
The long post-All-Star journey ends Monday night in Utah and the Celtics can get some rest after a tumultuous past month. But there has to be more nights where the complements produce, where Avery Bradley, Lee, Terry, or Green overcome their shortcomings and decided to put their full imprint on the game — consistently.
Sunday was one of those nights where their presence was needed and they failed to deliver. The Celtics’ playoff seed is precarious, their confidence unstable, so they can’t withstand too many nights like this and continue to believe they’ll prosper in April. Garnett and Pierce hope their pleas are heard loudly. They need help. They need relief.
“We’ve got to start preparing for the playoffs,” Pierce said. “The last two minutes we can’t give up open threes. We can’t give up 3-point plays. That’s playoff basketball right there and we have to be able to shut down teams the last couple of minutes of the game, especially when the offense isn’t going. The defense is always going to keep you in the game if you defend and rebound. We’re trying to learn on the fly.”