“I told our guys I thought overall it was probably our worst defensive effort in three, four years as far as overall effort.” – Doc Rivers
After tonight’s Celtics loss, I took a quick jaunt into the future, courtesy my indispensable time-machine. I was able to track down a copy of Return Of The Green: A History Of The New Big Three (by Brian Robb and Brendan Jackson, CelticsHub Press, $89.95) a lavish and weighty tome that included the following passage on page 413:
“These proficient Celtics’ teams, filled with title-hungry, all-star veterans and talented youngsters who bought into a system that stressed team play and team achievement, were made for the playoffs. They were tough, focused, and played the kind of physical defense that could reduce elite offenses to pale, whimpering facsimiles of themselves.
However, as the era progressed, these Celtics teams proved more and more likely to sprint for the first two months of the season, and then treat the rest of it like an extended jog to keep warm for the playoffs. In October, these Celtics promised they wouldn’t let up off the regular-season gas pedal and by mid-season, they did exactly that. These Celtics were liars.”
Did the Celtics have you fooled with all that talk of a wire-to-wire effort back in training camp? All that jazz about game sevens on the TD Garden floor being crucial to their championship aspirations?
It’s very possible the C’s stated intention of playing hard the whole season was a genuine one. But of course, let’s not forget the injuries that forced starters and bench players alike out of rotation and into longer minutes, right from the opening tip. Let’s not forget the age of the team – are they even capable of 82-straight good efforts? Or 75? Or 60?
Most importantly, let’s not forget the lesson learned last spring – you don’t have to try too hard in the regular season if you bring it in the playoffs. To his terminal frustration, this team simply doesn’t share Doc Rivers’ sense of urgency about these regular season games, home-court advantage be damned.
You know, a home game without one of their best scorers [Kevin Martin]; I don’t know if he’s their best player, but he’s their best scorer. We’ve lost to Oklahoma City at home, without two of their best players. So you look at some of our other losses, record-wise, you know it’s mental. That’s a mental mindset and it starts with me.
Credit to Doc for taking this one on himself and keeping the majority of his disgust in-house, but he’s not the problem.
This one is on the starters.
When this Celtics team fails as a result of effort, you can almost always drop the check on the starters’ side of the table. The bench has proven more-than-capable of failure this year, but that’s largely been a result of guys playing out of position (Nate Robinson) or third string guys being pressed into service (Avery Bradley, Semih Erden, Luke Harangody).
It’s rarely about effort with this bench. In that category, they usually deliver.
But turn your eyes to Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo and Glen Davis, the latter of whom wants to be paid and respected like a starter, and it’s a different story (Shaquille O’Neal only logged 21 minutes tonight and gets a pass).
At the half tonight, the starters were a collective -14 while the bench was a collective +16. By the end of the night, those figures were -31 for the starters and +1 for the bench. An imprecise metric, but instructive nonetheless.
The starting five’s slowdown offense and defensive indifference is your culprit du jour.
We could break it all down into the excruciating minutiae, but this was simply a case of a team not bringing it to the table energy-wise; energy being an asset closely tied to execution on the defensive end. The absence of those two things led to open shots for Houston (52.7% shooting on the night, and 10-20 from the arc despite Martin’s absence) and it led to the C’s being outrebounded 38-31 by a shrimpy Rockets team missing Yao Ming, Chuck Hayes, and Brad Miller. It also led to a scrappy David finding confidence in the first half against a passive, sleepy Goliath, and using it as a springboard to knock down some tough shots when the the big fellow woke up in the fourth quarter and tried to squash him.
Tortured metaphors aside, we know that some of the worst basketball in the NBA is played in January, when early-season vigor has given way to a seemingly interminable stretch of cold nights in northern cities, and a sense the real prize – the playoffs – is still a long, long ways off. Every team will have letdowns that prove little more than the fact that immediacy can be hard to find when the days are so short and one game spills on top of another in an indistinguishable pile.
There is cause for hope. Kevin Garnett’s imminent return, ostensibly on a fully healthy knee, unlike last year when his walk didn’t match his talk, will drive accountability on the defensive end. That alone might have made the difference tonight.
But does this Celtics team really have a different attitude than last year?
In one crucial way, yes.
Last year, the coach managed minutes and effort and sacrificed wins to prepare for April.
This year, he’s going full-bore.
Are his players willing to join him?