Kevin Garnett isn't walking through that door, but then, we already knew that. It's the rest of the Celtics who surprised us by failing to show up for the first half today.
Beginning with their captain.
Ten months removed from the victory that secured their 17th NBA championship, the Celtics began their postseason title defense with a 105-103 loss to the Chicago Bulls that was, in a word, infuriating. In a first half that set the tone for the day and, perhaps, the series, the Celtics played the first 24 minutes like a team that had no interest in trying. Rookie Derrick Rose had more assists (seven) than all of the Celtics combined (six), and Doc Rivers sounded as agitated after the game as he has at any point during his Celtics tenure.
Pierce? He finished with 23 points in this game, but do not be fooled. In the first half, he was virtually invisible. Pierce took four shots in the first two quarters -- four -- and committed three turnovers. He had zero assists. By the time Pierce came out for the second half with an indisputable purpose, the Celtics already had a nine-point deficit and the Bulls had reason to believe.
Forget the free throw Pierce missed at the end of the fourth quarter that could have delivered a victory and instead led to overtime. Things like that are entirely forgivable. But when the Celtics come out as a group looking like they really don't give a darn, well, that is just difficult to accept given the longstanding concept of Celtic Pride.
And one man in the Celtics uniform should understand that better than anyone else.
"As the captain of the ball club, I can't allow that, for us to come out as flat as we came out," a noble Pierce admitted after the defeat. "We've got to understand, `Hey, this is the playoffs, you lose you go home,' so we have to have a better sense of urgency from the jump each and every game. And I promise you that we will."
In Pierce's defense, he was not the only culprit, just one of the most obvious. Ray Allen uncharacteristically misfired on his way to a 1 for 12 performance, though he still took nearly twice as many first-half shots (seven) as Pierce. Allen looked like he tried to get into the flow of the game. Beyond that, the Celtics interior and transition defense was downright abysmal at times, though we all knew the former would be an issue in the absence of Garnett.
For Pierce and Allen, especially, this postseason must provide an extraordinary letdown. Deep down, whether they will admit it or not, Pierce and Allen know the Celtics cannot win a title without Garnett; each man has played far too many meaningless games in his career to get excited about more meaningless ones now. Yet, the playoffs are the playoffs and professionalism is professionalism, and losing to a team like the Bulls in the first round would be an underachievement of the most insulting kind for a team that won 62 games during the regular season.
At this point, for the Celtics, this is about maximizing their season the way the Patriots did in the absence of Tom Brady, playoffs or no playoffs. These Celtics should at least get by one round and should probably get by two. After that, assuming the Celts get that far, they will likely begin encountering opponents indisputably better than them. Most every reasonable person can accept losing to a superior opponent. It's the losses to the inferior teams that frequently send men like Rivers through the roof.
"Guys, Kevin is not playing in these playoffs. I'm not answering Kevin Garnett questions," said a rightfully testy Rivers. "This is about the players in uniform. Kevin is gone and he ain't coming back. The guys in uniform have to play."
Today, of all players in uniform, the best was Rose, who was playing in his first career NBA postseason game. If that trend continues throughout this series, that is as much a reflection on Pierce and Allen, in that order, as it is on the marvelous point guard of the Bulls. If you believe, as many do, that the team with the best player should win any NBA playoff series, you believe the Celtics should win this series. And they should win it easy.
We all know about the depth of Pierce's talents and the breadth of his skills, something he systematically reminded us of last postseason. One of the biggest reasons the Celtics won the NBA Finals last year is because Pierce was the best player in the series, better than even the more celebrated Kobe Bryant. Pierce played both ends of the floor, with passion and poise, and he all but single-handedly took over Game 4 the way he took over Game 7 against the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James. The Celtics subsequently lined up behind their captain, the way that great teams do, and Pierce led them to where the Celtics wanted to go.
Now, one year later, the final destination for the Celtics is not likely to be as glorious. Pierce took 17 shots in the second half and overtime of Game 1, when the Celtics looked like a far more familiar team. Wherever the Celtics go this postseason, it will likely depends largely on the performance of captain.
Under the circumstances, after all, they need his leadership now more than ever before.
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