NEW YORK — The 14-4 record after Rajon Rondo’s season-ending knee injury was deceiving, as it caused Celtics fans to envision a ball-moving team that would score easy layups with fierce activity. It allowed those Green faithful to imagine the Celtics winning big with Avery Bradley at point guard. It created a mirage of offensive success — the Celtics would share the ball more consistently.
In the second half of the first two first-round playoff games against the Knicks, we have witnessed a team that is not whole, hardly capable of scoring consistently against a passionate defensive team, lazily depending on fadeaways and contested jump shots to make rallies.
The Celtics don’t have enough to win this series — they don’t have enough scorers, they don’t have enough consistency, and they don’t have enough talent after another listless second-half performance in an 87-71 loss Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. While New York coach Mike Woodson digs into his bench for Kenyon Martin, Doc Rivers counters with Shavlik Randolph.
Bradley has proved to be a valuable asset this season — at shooting guard. He was once again walloped in the point guard battle with Raymond Felton, who scored 16 points with 7 rebounds and 0 turnovers. Bradley countered with 6 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 turnover.
Boston’s problem is it cannot create any easy baskets. The Celtics work overtime to score, and when shots fall, they appear capable. When they don’t, they don’t have any other options. They can’t get to the free throw line. They have erratic finishers and they don’t shoot well from the 3-point line.
Add to that a seemingly inexplicable lack of passion in this series, and you have a team that’s fried, its superstars too old to carry games and the youth too daunted by the moment. There is frustration brimming in the Celtics locker room, some players frustrated at each other, some at Rivers for his erratic rotations, and others at officials because Pablo Prigioni (2) attempted as many free throws as Paul Pierce in Game 2.
The injuries are just too much. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge was buoyed by the team’s spurt after Rondo’s injury and refrained from major moves, and then refused to make minor ones, such as signing Martin when he was lobbying Kevin Garnett, who shares the same agent, for an opportunity.
Martin got his opportunity all right, and his four blocked shots Tuesday night equaled the Celtics team, and he added 11 rebounds in 23 minutes.
He is relishing the opportunity to batter the Celtics because they passed on him, instead choosing to wait and then depend on Chris Wilcox when Jared Sullinger went down.
The Celtics are mired in confusion because they are doing everything they can to stay close in games, and even led, 48-39, with the ball late in the second half, but then come out in the second half lackadaisical. When Iman Shumpert hit two open 3-pointers to begin the third quarter and the Celtics scored 2 points in the first 4:59 of the quarter, it was apparent they were going to fold again.
They don’t have enough offense as currently constructed to rally because Garnett can’t get to the free throw line — Anthony has attempted 17 free throws in the series to Garnett’s four — and Pierce is struggling with his jumper — he is 2 for 12 from the 3-point line.
After the game, Rivers had few answers. He was seething about the officiating, especially three calls against Garnett, who was more out of position than actually fouling, a flop by Prigioni that had Vlade Divac smiling somewhere in Serbia, and just general referee inconsistency.
But that has little to do with how this series has gone. The Celtics just don’t have enough offensive prowess. Jordan Crawford has emerged as their primary bench scorer, they don’t have a capable backup center who can score, play defense, or block shots, and let’s not even discuss the lack of a capable backup point guard.
The Celtics are flawed, and against teams who are good and relentless and well-coached, they are exposed quickly.
“We are who we are,” Rivers said. “We can’t apologize for that. This is who we have been left with and I think it’s good enough to win. So far, I haven’t gotten them in the right spots. We can play better and we have to play better.”
Can they? Are they capable? Yes, the Celtics can win two games in this series. They can win the next two games, but Rivers and Ainge have been trying to convince the players and probably themselves that this roster is capable of greatness, or at least goodness, and it simply isn’t.
Defensively there are traits of past teams, but then come stretches, such as the one in the third quarter, when the Celtics allow poor offense to penetrate their defense, and they simply relent. How else would you explain the Knicks going 12 for 17 from the floor in the third and 20 for 59 the other three quarters? In that third quarter, Pierce and Garnett accounted for 9 of the 11 Boston points.
The reliance on Pierce and Garnett was supposed to decrease as they aged, and it hasn’t. Jeff Green is now 1-for-11 shooting in the second half of the two games. While he is progressing, Green isn’t quite ready for the enormity of these moments.
So what now? The Celtics try to make this a series. They put their fortitude into Game 3, hope the Knicks are basking in the ease of their first two wins and enter Friday unfocused. They hope some of their jumpers fall through the friendly nets of TD Garden and the sellout crowd provides some salve. But honestly, it just would be a temporary ointment. The obvious is apparent. The Celtics are far from a championship-caliber team. They are competing. They are trying, but eventually they are chased and caught like a gazelle in the wild.
The Knicks and Heat are predators and the Celtics can do nothing this season to break into that category. This is who they are: flawed and shorthanded. But we knew that, didn’t we?