One year ago “yesterday” in NBA terms, I arrived in Toronto from New York at about 8:30 p.m. and went to visit my girlfriend, who lived in Toronto then, at her sister’s condo near the SkyDome. They were watching what was apparently a critical episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Someone was dying or having sex with a cadaver on a surgical table or trying to save a unicorn (or whatever happens on that godawful show).
I asked if I might head to the sports bar across the street (“Shoeless Joe’s,” because nothing says “Canada” like a disgraced American baseball player). The Celtics were playing their last game before the All-Star break, at Dallas, and I could still catch the 2nd half. They didn’t mind. The blonde from “Knocked Up” was having sex with McDreamy, or something, and it was clear my girlfriend and her sister would be occupied for a bit.
I got there just in time to see the Mavericks go up 15 mid-way through the 3rd quarter.
Toward the end of that 3rd quarter, KG picked up his third and fourth fouls in the span of 11 seconds—both on touch fouls—and Doc Rivers went crazy. He got tossed, but the C’s fought to within 75-69 at the end of the 3rd.
This was a game I had expected Boston to lose, even though the Mavs were missing Jason Terry due to an injury. It was the last game before the All-Star break and the second half of a road back-to-back. Once a team falls behind by 15 in this kind of game, you sort of expect them to mail it in. Especially when their best player (KG) has been saddled with foul trouble all game. The C’s were 43-11. A loss wouldn’t have been a big deal.
Except the Celtics, at that point, were still maniacally obsessed with winning—with proving 2008 wasn’t a fluke, with defending their crown, with writing their place in Celtic history.
The C’s rallied to win that game by outscoring Dallas 30-17 in the 4th quarter. Paul Pierce scored 18 of his game-high 31 in that 4th quarter, and it was vintage Pierce—step-back jumpers, drives to the hole, bunches of free throws. He iced the game with a jumper–drawn charge-jumper sequence late in the 4th.
My girlfriend had joined me at the bar for the end of the game, and I walked across the street to her sister’s condo on a high. She would understand now why I liked this team so much. They were determined, they never gave up and they won games. There wasn’t a team in the league, I thought, who could beat Boston in a seven-game series.
That was Feb. 12, 2009. Kevin Garnett hurt his knee at Utah one week later, and the Celtics have never been the same. They haven’t reached the level they reached that night at Dallas for one second since then. And last night, in the last game before this year’s All-Star break, we watched the C’s blow another double-digit lead; turn the ball over another 21 times; hit just 16 of 27 free throws; and score just 30 points in the second half. Between them, the big three made six total field goals. And if you say, “Hey, wait, only two of them played last night,” then you’re making the same point I am.
It’s easy to cherry-pick one or two games and make conclusions about a team; announcers and writers do it all the time. But those two games, one year apart on the NBA’s calendar, provide fair representations of where the 2009 and 2010 versions of the Celtics stood and stand, respectively, at the All-Star break. One was a dominant, hungry team with as good a chance as any of the elite at winning the title. The other is, frankly, a mess—the most turnover prone team in the league, 9-13 in its last 22 games, 1-7 combined against Orlando and Atlanta, and trying to squeeze enough points out of an offense that has regressed to league average. They might be just as hungry; if they are, the level of play we are seeing is even more disturbing.
Ray Allen missed last night’s game with back spasms. Paul Pierce played despite a “mid-foot sprain.” Kevin Garnett is recovering from a series of knee injuries, and his prognosis is unclear.
All is not lost. The team was a break or two away from a three-game winning streak against Atlanta, Orlando and the Lakers late last month, and their defense looked like the 2008 version of itself against the Lakers. And this team could look very different in six weeks. Kevin Garnett could proceed through his recovery. Paul Pierce’s foot will feel better. Rasheed Wallace will play himself into shape. The Celtics are playing for May and June, not February.
But this team, right now, is completely out of sorts, and you’d be a fool to deny it. The amount of change—almost all negative—in 363 days is jarring. It’s not shocking, though. This is what the Celtics signed up for when they dealt away young talent and draft picks for Kevin Garnett.
Danny Ainge has a week to figure out if the C’s can rediscover the brand of basketball they played last February at Dallas. Because if the higher-ups don’t think the team can do that—if they think this 9-13 stretch has exposed flaws that won’t correct themselves—they must explore all alternatives before the trade deadline and then again in the off-season.