By replacing gritty defensive guys like Posey, Brown and Powe with shooters like Lil' Nate and Mike Finley, Ainge further eroded the team's identity. 'Get stops' isn't an option anymore. This team isn't physically able to 'get stops.' And nobody's intimidated by them anymore, either.Those were the words written by my fellow writer here on Celtics 17, KneeJerkNBA. And while harsh words they may be, Celtics nor any NBA fan can deny the truthfulness that lies beneath them.
As the Boston Celtics fell to the Memphis Grizzles Wednesday night, the depression that hung in the air was something that words couldn't quite describe. Yes, you could mention that the Boston Celtics were disgustingly outrebounded by 19 boards. You could point out that Memphis shot 55% from the field and 56%+ from behind the arc. But there is no way to nail the "The Celtics just didn't have it... again" aspect. There is no impact that rests in those words, or, at least not nearly an impact that measures up to the real thing.
A few years ago, we witnessed that team in the league, a team that emotionally connected with their fans as electricity in the relationship between the two sparked a run that led to a much-longed-for NBA championship. We not only had the pieces on paper, but we had the chemistry. We had the leadership. We had players that knew the right time to dish out an extra pass (the famous split-second swing for a three or open look that was stamped rightfully by the Celts' that season). We also had players that recognized that must-win games sometimes hung on the decision made by players to hoard the ball selfishly for themselves and get the job done (the 41-point Pierce V. the 45-point LeBron game).
But the attitude never changed, no matter what the game style of that night was. I was there at game 7 of the '07-08 Eastern Conference semis, and I can tell you one thing: Paul Pierce was there to score, to dominate, to bloody the Cavs in every way he was capable of doing from the start. But despite his demeanor that in times made him look self-centered with the ball, his teammates were with him from the getgo. And not only was that support playing out just because that player happened to be Paul Pierce, but because it was one of their teammates. Paul Pierce was a Celtic, and so were the rest of those who emerged victorious last night. And that never changed whether it ended up being an evenly spread boxscore or a Paul Pierce/insert any other Celtic here-takeover.
Fast forward to last year. We had a few different players, but the destination, the drive, and the purpose was still there. We scorched the league from the start, racing out to an incredible 27-2 start. That clear sovereignty continued until our precious Kevin Garnett went down immediately after the All-Star break (by the way; although this is obviously easy to say in my position, I can't help but point out that it's ridiculous for Boston to allow the NBA to use our players elected to play in the All-Star game in any way they please with no restrictions. If I'm the Cs, I'm giving the coaches that are handed the reigns of the team limits concerning how much they can toy with our guys on the court during a game that's completely meaningless to every contender in the Association).
But regardless of the hammering injury, we played with a chip on our shoulder, and as always, fighting and eventually prevailing in what is now considered one of the most thrilling playoff series' of all-time (the Boston Chicago series, which involved numerous memorable OTs). We also almost slipped past the eventual Eastern Conference champs, armed with a 3-2 lead after five games but sadly falling in the last two. And this is all without Kevin Garnett.
At last, we arrive to 2009-10. With an improved Rondo and Perkins, a healthy Garnett, and at least a little bit more rested Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, we're a better team automatically than the squad last year that advanced to the second round of the playoffs and seemed to be well on their way to the EC Finals before a heartbreaking final two games. However, that's not all. We added a woefully underrated Marquis Daniels (who has been compared to the likes of Josh Howard and also plays a game style similar to that of Stephen Jackson), a dominant post player (who can cause trouble, but should have been set straight by our vets from the beginning nonetheless) in Rasheed Wallace, and another backup big man in Shelden Williams.
Three quarters of the way through the season, we've now also added Nate Robinson and Michael Finley. Where do we stand? Well let's just say that the team we're looking at on paper doesn't resemble the team we see on the court, nor does our record hint at us having such a great team (stats-/skills-wise at least).
The differences between this team and the past two of the Big Three era? Well, there's many. For one, Boston is a much less docile group than the crews the Celts had on their side in the past. Docile in the sense of all of the players having one goal, whether it's a wild goal or a conservative objective. We were all on the same page, which made it easier to strike points and basically just coach. This team? We're all over the place, I guess, is the best way to put it.
Two years ago and even last year, I remember a team that was fired up for even the most piddling of games. Now? Maybe we just don't have the energy for that anymore, whether we'd like to our not. Maybe we're resting for strategical reasons. But while that theory is understandable in these circumstances, it's been proven to be foolproof when you, well, don't win the ones that you save energy for in the first place.
And the conclusion is evident now: Even if we do manage to find that passion, that fire, it is, in many senses, much too late. Sure, we've saved energy all year long. But to become formidable once again, to gain position against other teams or at least be at the same level they are, we're going to have to rampage the league on a ferocious tear in these next few months. And at the level of stamina this team has shown it has, I'm not sure we can do that and still get up for the playoffs. Or at least, stay up for the duration of the playoffs, which we would need to do if we wanted to attain another ring. December is long gone. Sitting tight waiting for a run in January isn't possible now. Even February has evaded us. We're in March, nervously sweating it out until April.
Hey, miracles can happen. We don't know what's being said in the locker room. We have no clue what's going on in the closed, whispered huddles during practice. But from what I've been seeing lately, I just don't see it happening. It's too bad, going through so much for so little (maybe I'm under-appreciating the glory of one mere ring, but I was hoping to at least be in contention for two). It's even more disappointing that the Celtics essentially just let this happen. They let it slip away. They watched a likely banner slowly (don't think this happened in a flash; we had all the time in the world to turn it around and we couldn't get it done) drive by them, and sooner or later, a Cinderella Story as well (if the C's can't beat out the Hawks for the third seed, then this season, this goal, really ought to be packed away).
Of course, we can't doubt the potentials of a sensational offseason, as this would be the perfect time to do it (although we always have to keep money in mind). Danny might sense that the team as a whole (which includes the ENTIRE organization) didn't feel that the fans got their full due after 16 years of atrocious misfortune after Bird hung up the laces. But these are all possibilities that are battling the odds. And since we've seen that we can't complete the likelihoods that were graciously given to us at the beginning of this season (a refueled, recharged, revamped team that could easily have been included in the top five, maybe even top three teams in the league right now, and close to the end chunk of the season where contenders rest and teams battling for position continue to fight tirelessly), what leads us to believe that we have the proof to doubt the odds?
For one, there's hope. Basketball is a game of breaks. Sometimes, there's opportunities you ride out for much too long than destiny should have allowed you too. And in others (particularly this one), you fall way short of expectations and in all honesty, are stripped of what should have been.
So yeah, there will always be that next year, those next few years, those next 10 years. But the only thing at this point that I can say with all the certainty in my mind, with no counter-arguments available to mention is: Ubuntu might want to get a head start on getting comfort with the dark, dingy cellars of the NBA.