The Boston Celtics were a lot of people's pick to be the second-place team in the Eastern Conference, with a legitimate shot to take out the Miami Heat in the playoffs if things fell into place well. Yet here they sit, 7-6, with a lot of questions left to answer before those thoughts crop up in anybody's mind again.
Really, this isn't a case comparable to some of the other struggling teams in the league dealing with injuries. The Los Angeles Lakers are waiting for their team to heal and gel together, and the same can be said about teams like the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Instead, Boston is looking more like the Denver Nuggets by not dealing with putting the best team on the floor; rather they are playing their own style of basketball. They haven't played like we've known them to play in years past.
At times watching this Celtics team there's a feeling of indifference, like losing the game at hand isn't something that would kill them. It's almost as if this team is willing to accept defeat. That's not something that's necessarily bad for a team during an 82-game season, but that is something that's extremely uncharacteristic of recent Celtics teams.
The intensity that has personified these Celtics ever since they came together in 2007 is just no longer there, and it seems to be combination of factors.
Kevin Garnett's Diminished Role
This team has historically rode on Kevin Garnett's sometimes maniac tendencies on the court. Whether you agree with his bully tactics that he's stooped to over the past five years or not, it can't be ignored that Garnett's biggest contribution has been to the team's attitude as a whole.
Sure, Garnett is a terrific scorer and an even better defender, but what makes him tick is the anger that flows through him, the intensity that drives him and the physicality that drives both his offensive and defensive game.
Over the years the Celtics have thrived off this, and the rest of the team has fed off of Garnett's intensity, but it just hasn't been there yet this season.
Part of the problem could be that the Celtics are dramatically limiting his minutes, as he's averaging a career-low 28.6 minutes per game, contributing to the worst rebounding numbers he's seen since his rookie season.
I'm not sure whether or not they need him in there to be full of anger and intensity or if they just need him in there so they don't have to play the backup big men as much, but there's definitely something lacking in the competitiveness department. Garnett's lessened role has to have something to do with that.
Honestly, Boston has played 13 games and Garnett only has one technical foul so far; something's has to be missing.
Rajon Rondo's Team
I've never been one to dislike Rajon Rondo because he has a bit of an off-kilter personality, but there's been something about this Celtics team—now supposedly "Rondo's team"—that hasn't worked out.
There has been a superficial element to the entire team starting and ending with his double-digit assist streak. It's not that it isn't impressive, rather there's a lot of effort being put into something that will end up being superfluous.
It's the passing out of a certain layup to hit Garnett at 17-feet on the baseline, or dishing out of a fast-break to a trailer on a 3-2 fast break. There's a borderline obsession with getting 10 assists in Rondo, and it's starting to be a bit of a sideshow.
What does this have to do with the team's intensity? It's more about the attitude of Rondo than it is the actual event itself. Rondo's assist streak has been about him passing, not his team scoring, no matter how many times he comes out after a game and compliments his teammates. He wants this record for his own satisfaction, otherwise he wouldn't have gone back into the team's blowout loss to the Pistons last week.
If ever there were selfish assists, it's been in the first dozen games for Rondo in this young season. And for a teams' leader to act in that manner is sending the wrong message.
If anything, this team needs to go back to the way they played under Paul Pierce, and Pierce said as much himself:
We can play in the hundreds, but we're a team that likes to grind out wins. We don't mind playing a game in the 80s, 90s or getting defensive stop after defensive stop. So we have to go back to that, understand who we are.
That's the way the Celtics have won games in the past five years. They're not an offensive juggernaut looking to put up century marks every game, they are grinders who just haven't done much grinding thus far.