We all remember. It began like this, “The Bears are who we thought they were. They're who we thought they were.” Green continued on, but it is really the beginning of the quote that is relevant to the Celtics.
The Celtics are who we thought they were. Or maybe worded a little more precisely, the Celtics are who they have proven to be. And who the Celtics are at the moment is not a championship caliber team.
I wanted to believe the Celtics were a title contender. I wanted to believe they were just in a rough patch. But nearly every game over the last two months has told me differently.
The Celtics are not an elite team, they are not title contenders. They are a team without many flaws that does not have an identity and sorely lacks the type of intensity we came accustomed to seeing from Boston the last two seasons.
This was evident even last night in a Celtics victory.
Boston defeated the Pistons 105-100. It was a grind it out, never pretty victory against a struggling Detroit team. The Pistons had lost three in a row entering the game and were just 6-12 in their previous 18 games.
Yet, Boston trailed heading into the fourth quarter, and if it wasn’t for the bench, most notably Nate Robinson and Glen Davis who combined for 15 fourth-quarter points, the Celtics very well might have lost last night as well.
Many expected a more inspired effort last night. The reason being the Celtics were coming off one of their most embarrassing losses in years, falling to the pathetic New Jersey Nets at home.
That loss came on the heels of another embarrassing loss, where the Cleveland Cavaliers essentially toyed with Boston for three quarters, before outscoring the Celtics by 21 points in the fourth quarter on their way to a 108-88 victory.
Watching last night’s game on NBA TV, Ernie Johnson and Kevin McHale talked beforehand about expecting to see the Celtics begin the game highly motivated in an attempt to show that the loss to the Nets was a fluke.
That is what good teams do. That, unfortunately, was not what Boston did.
The Celtics showed no more energy, no more emotion, and no sense or urgency. At the end of the first quarter, the game was tied. By halftime, the Celtics had allowed the Pistons, the second worst scoring team in the entire league, to total 52 points.
During halftime, Johnson and McHale talked about how they were surprised at the lack of energy, especially on defense, from Boston. Hearing them talk like this really struck me, because it was only a few weeks ago when Eric Snow, also on NBA TV, said of the Celtics after a loss to the Chris Paul-less New Orleans Hornets, “You'd expect the Celtics to have a little more fight in them at the end.”
Snow was right - you would have expected more fight out of the 2008 or the 2009 Celtics. But if you have been paying attention the last two months, you would know, the Celtics just are not that same team anymore.
There has been talk about the Celtics being bored with the regular season and that they will flip a switch when the games matter.
In a general sense, maybe that makes some sense. But in reality, blaming boredom is an excuse to conceal the real problems holding this team back.
Boredom or a switch being in the off position is not why Boston is 14-16 in its last 30 games. If that were the case, the switch would have been turned on, at least on a few nights.
The Celtics would have turned it on at some point before losing 11 games at home, which is one fewer than they lost at home in the previous two seasons combined. And certainly, if there was a switch, it would have been turned on in last night’s game after the loss at home to the Nets.
But the switch stayed off.
Yes, Boston won, but the win was hardly the result of the team's collective focus being any different than it has been the last two months. Winning a few games against inferior teams should not distract from the uneven play that has plagued the Celtics over the last 30 games.
The Celtics themselves need to admit that their struggles have nothing to do with boredom, and everything to do with talent, coaching, focus, chemistry, and hustle. Until they do, they will have no chance to improve their deficiencies and will continue to be the type of team that does not measure up to the top teams in the league and has to struggle to defeat anyone else.
Unfortunately, that may be exactly who the Celtics are.
What has happened all too often this season is the Celtics will play well for a quarter or two, and then fall flat all of a sudden in another quarter. It happened again last night, with a 17-point third quarter. Luckily, the opponent was the Pistons, and Boston could overcome its bad quarter.
It was only about 10 days ago when Boston won three in a row out of the All-Star break, including winning at the Lakers, and optimism was much higher. A closer look though, revealed that even in those wins, the Celtics exhibited the same flaws that have caused them to lose many of these games. The most significant flaw is poor quarters, especially in the second half. In the win at Sacramento, Boston managed only 38 second-half points, at the Lakers just 34 in the second half, including only 11 in the fourth quarter, and even at Portland, Boston after a 56-point first half, scored just 17 in the third quarter.
I see two reasons for the quarter-to-quarter struggles – Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce. Right now, Rondo is the Celtics best player. As good as he is, I don’t think he is ready to be the best player on an elite team because he remains inconsistent. At times, he is electric on the court. Last night, he tied a team record with his seventh straight double-digit assist game. When Rondo is playing well, the offense looks unstoppable. But he also has terrible droughts for long stretches, where it is almost as if he isn’t even on the court. When that happens, the offense comes to a halt.
Some examples are, against Cleveland, Boston led 56-48 at the half with Rondo scoring 14 points and dishing out 8 assists. In the second half, Rondo had just five points and three assists, with just four points and no assists in the fourth quarter. Last night in Detroit, Rondo had 11 first-half points, but failed to score in the second half until four free throws in the game’s final 30 seconds.
Which brings me back to Paul Pierce. The captain has suffered a number of injuries this season. Nothing major, but they have clearly taken their toll on him. Over his last eight games, Pierce is averaging just 11.4 points on 36-percent shooting from the floor and a Rasheed-esque 28-percent from three. Pierce is so important to this team because when the pace of the games does slow down, and Rondo’s effectiveness is diminished, Pierce has the ability to more than pick up any slack and be the focal point of the offense. But, he needs to be healthy.
Speaking of health, a positive note is that Kevin Garnett continues to look healthy on the court. He will never be the KG from even two years ago, but we aren’t seeing him limp his way up and down the court like we were just a few weeks ago.
Good to see Shelden Williams get some playing time last night. He had six points and four rebounds in 16 minutes. It was the first meaningful game action he has seen since the beginning of January. Doc Rivers likely called on Williams last night because Kendrick Perkins was out with the flu. But even when Perkins returns, I wouldn’t mind seeing Williams play over the other free agent power forward Danny Ainge signed last offseason. At least Williams hustles.