Beyond the final buzzer, in the hallway that leads from the home bench at TD Garden to the locker room of the most accomplished franchise in NBA history, there was silence. The Celtics walked in single file, heads hung, their egos and spirits dampened by a 108-88 beating by what is now the best team in basketball.
Minutes later, Kevin Garnett’s head was still hanging as he answered questions in a customary post-game briefing, his eyes all but fixed on the table before him. Head coach Doc Rivers entered the room and immediately began taking questions, forgoing any opening statement in defense of a team that now seems both defenseless and indefensible.
Well guess what.
The Cavs just did.
Oh, this is still the regular season, to be sure, but let us not delude ourselves any longer. To win another championship banner in this rapidly closing era of the new Big Three, the Celtics will need something close to a miracle. There may soon come a time when we will further wonder whether Danny Ainge should have strapped some dynamite to the Celtics roster last week, when he instead swapped Eddie House for Nate Robinson in what now seems like a classic case of rearranging the furniture.
With or without Paul Pierce, the Celtics had a chance to win this game. They had the chance to create further doubt in both LeBron James and a Cavs team that had not won in Boston since the reign of Al Jefferson. Instead, the Celtics self-destructed in their worst home loss since March 7, 2007, the date of a 111-80 defeat to the Houston Rockets in what was a 24-58 season. During the ensuing summer, Ainge flipped over the roster by bringing Garnett and Ray Allen to Boston, facilitating a 66-16 regular season that ultimately delivered precisely 82 wins, counting postseason play, as well as well as Banner 17.
But now? Now the Celtics continue to look like a shell of that team, devoid of appetite, quickness, mystique. There is just nothing much to fall back on at the moment. The Celtics raced out of the gate last night behind the stellar play of point guard Rajon Rondo, who scored or assisted on the Celtics’ first 21 points of the game. Be it the result of Cleveland adjustments or Rondo fatigue – the Celtics went due south the moment Rondo did, particularly in the absence of Pierce.
"The one mistake I absolutely made was keeping him in the whole game," Rivers said of Rondo, who did not come off the floor until there was 2:49 to play. "And I made that decision midway through the second quarter."
Countered James, "We kept Rondo out the paint a little more (in the second half). In the first quarter and first half he did a great job of getting to the paint and breaking our defense down and making a shot for himself or creating for others. We definitely made a conscious effort of trying to lock him down more in the second half.’’
And once that happened, the Celtics went pfft.
Admittedly, drawing bigger picture conclusions from any single is always a dangerous practice. Yet, one can’t help but get the feeling that the Celtics themselves were as discouraged as anyone else following last night’s meltdown. Garnett seemed utterly demoralized, at one point acknowledging that reporters were undoubtedly "tired" of the same answers and then apologizing for it. Rivers seemed profoundly agitated, responding to a question about the Celtics’ inability to close with an uncharacteristically tart reply.
What does Rivers make of blowing all these double-digit leads?
"I don’t," volleyed the coach. "There’s nothing I can do about it; obviously I’d like to improve it. We’d like to be better. But we’re not right now, and we’ve just got to keep working on it. I know what we need to do. But one night it’ll be defense, one night it’ll be offense. So we’ve just got to be more consistent."
In the interim, the Celtics have just 26 games left in the regular season, which is still an ample chunk of the schedule. At the same time, they have played 56 games and are now 13-15 in their last 28 games after going 23-5 in their first 28. The Celtics have dealt with injury, to be sure, but such is life with an older roster. To wit: Youngsters Rondo and Perkins have missed one game between them.
Is this Celtics team capable of doing great things, assuming all planets are in alignment, from Garnett to Pierce to Marquis Daniels and Glenn Davis? Perhaps. There is certainly that chance.
And yet, as the Cavaliers departed the TD Garden last night and the Celtics sat with slumped shoulders, you could not help but get the feeling that one team had climbed over a hump while another had slid farther down a dramatic slope, the distance between them growing. And the light having moved well past dawn.
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