Big picture out of focus
With the Celtics in their final gasps during a 16-0 fourth-quarter run by Charlotte, Jeff Green, sitting on the bench, sensed his club needed a defensive stop and rose to his feet to show support. But before he began to rise, he looked and his benchmates were frozen, emotionless, and rather uninterested.
Green stood alone to offer encouragement and it seemed his teammates on the court looked backed at him and wanted to switch places. The Celtics had little passion last night against the Bobcats. They should have spent the first half embarrassing a team that’s missing three starters after Michael Jordan pulled the plug on the playoff run by trading Gerald Wallace to Portland.
Charlotte came to Boston ready to be sliced and eaten. Instead, because the players are young, impressionable and don’t know any better, the Bobcats played 48 minutes, while the Celtics punched out about 15 minutes early and were embarrassed with an 83-81 loss at TD Garden.
The loss was so stunning that coach Doc Rivers was unsure whether to point fingers, blame himself, or call an 11 p.m. practice at the Garden. He probably would have if the arena’s employees didn’t have to convert the floor to an ice rink for today’s 1 p.m. game with the Rangers.
So he sat in front of the media, unable to explain why his prideful team is playing with such carelessness and disregard, why an offense with four All-Stars can’t score more than 80 points unless they are at Madison Square Garden, and why they have allowed the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference to slip away in two weeks.
Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal have nothing to do with this collapse. As Celtics president Danny Ainge told the Globe before the game, the reason the Celtics are in Operation Meltdown is because of the Big Four. That quartet was 3-for-13 shooting in the fourth quarter and Paul Pierce, seemingly in love with his long-range shot, insisted on shooting 3-pointers.
Pierce, who missed 4 of 5 last night, including one that clanged off the backboard in the fourth quarter, is 23 for his last 89 from the 3-point line (26 percent).
By contrast, Pierce is 56 of 98 (57 percent) on 2-point shots this month, but he insists on using key stretches of games to prove he is a capable long-distance shooter. And in the pivotal fourth quarter, when the Celtics were desperate for points and the only obstacle Charlotte presented in the middle was Kwame Brown, Pierce attempted three 3-pointers of his seven shots.
“We’re just not ready to win any games right now, the way our approach is to basketball games,’’ Rivers said. “I told them that with about five minutes left. If we win, great. Find your own way because right now we’ve become very, very selfish. Everything is about how you’re playing individually instead how the team is playing. A guy struggles, he pouts, he moans because everything is ‘me, me, me’ on our team right now, feeling sorry for themselves instead of giving themselves to the team and just playing.
“You can just see it manifest throughout the team and until we do that, we’ll continue to have results like we had tonight.’’
Rivers usually doesn’t call out his players or question their ability to thrive in difficult situations but he did last night. Like a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament falling to a No. 10 seed, the Celtics felt pressure on every fourth-quarter possession, realizing their fate if they didn’t execute.
One NBA insider told me recently that teams are no longer intimidated when they come to TD Garden. Teams with a day off in Boston usually went out on the town the night before a game because they realized they had little chance of pulling off a victory.
Now they realize the Celtics will enter not entirley focused and the collapse will occur either at the beginning or, like last night, the very end.
Rivers said it is his responsibility to find the root of the complacency, but in reality it’s up to the veteran players to regain their confidence and urgency. Rivers acknowledged he chided and screamed at his players after the game. The Bobcats were missing three starters, including Stephen Jackson. The Celtics allowed D.J. White to score 17 points. Rajon Rondo’s assist-to-turnover ratio was a discouraging 1-to-1. Delonte West had one assist in 18 minutes.
These are random facts, but all are disparaging. The Celtics are trying to regain their identity after the Kendrick Perkins trade. Not that they wouldn’t endure offensive struggles if Perkins was here, but this team grieved too long for Perkins and waited too long for the O’Neals and lost concentration.
While Miami and the Lakers endured such dire straits earlier in the season, they have grown more sound because of those experiences. The Celtics have to get that swagger back, that desire to crush teams and pounce lesser opponents.
“I know Doc and everybody is looking at themselves and it starts with everybody and we obviously have to do this together,’’ said Kevin Garnett, who scored 12 points. “Everybody is going to have to pick up and change this. It is difficult. I think everybody is trying to do it themselves and not together. Like I said, we’ll watch the tape and try to better ourselves.’’
The tape will only reveal what is already apparent: The Celtics have lost their edge.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.