BOSTON – As he walked out of the Garden following yet another painful loss, Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo(notes) fondly reminisced about the franchise's storied past. Not the days of Auerbach, Russell, Cousy and Bird. No, Rondo was feeling nostalgic about Boston's Big Three of a more recent vintage: the Paul Pierce(notes)-Ray Allen-Kevin Garnett(notes) triumvirate that powered the Celtics to their 17th championship just two years ago. It was that team – and even the team that plowed through the first half of last season – that overwhelmed opponents the moment they stepped onto the court. For nearly two years, Boston ruled the NBA with intimidation.
Now? Rondo has to admit the obvious. These Celtics don't scare anyone, and they haven't since the beginning of the season.
"It's not the same," Rondo said. "Teams are ready to beat us and are ready to play against us. It's probably because we don't put that dominant fear in them from the start of the game. We give the team confidence. Our team knows it.
"Doc [Rivers] has said that many a time, 'Teams are not going to lie down any more.' They're coming in with confidence and we're not taking it away from them."
Is it too late for the Celtics to get better? Or, is this who they are? A good team, but not great.
With just eight games left, Boston can only hope its championship pedigree shows in the postseason.
"Once you get to the playoffs, [the regular season] is going to be forgotten," Paul Pierce said. "They are going to remember what you did in the playoffs."
The Celtics haven't forgotten what happened a year ago. With Garnett sidelined by knee problems, they lost to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Celtics returned this season with a stronger, deeper roster – seemingly even deeper than the one that carried them to the 2008 championship. Rondo became an All-Star while starting center Kendrick Perkins(notes) has also improved. The bench includes Glen Davis(notes), Rasheed Wallace(notes), Marquis Daniels(notes) and a pair of late-season additions: Nate Robinson(notes) and Michael Finley(notes).
But after winning 66 and 62 games the previous two years, this season's Celtics will be fortunate to reach 50. Boston began the weekend at 47-27, holding onto the East's fourth seed.
"Talent-wise, we're better," Rondo said. "Knowing our stats, playing with so many guys, I don't think we know exactly what we are looking for each possession. In our second group, we have four guys who are new to the system, but that's the situation. The starting five, it starts with us. In the third quarter, it starts with us.
"This record is terrible. We are the fourth right now, but I don't care what seed it is. We're going to have to play Cleveland one way or another, Orlando one way or another. Whether we play them first, second or third round, we are going to have to face them."
The biggest problem for the Celtics is Pierce and Garnett have not consistently played at their usual All-Star level because of injuries. With each passing month, Garnett has seemed to gain more strength and confidence in his surgically repaired right knee, but his statistics haven't changed dramatically. At 33, he's on pace to have his lowest scoring (14.4), rebounding (7.6) and minutes (29.9) averages since he was a rookie.
"This is the first time Kevin had this type of injury where he had to have surgery. You tend to think you could come back and do the things you used to do right away. That's not always the case," Pierce said.
Pierce, 32, has been plagued by a variety of injuries himself. He had his right knee drained in December, was bothered by a left foot strain in February and more recently has been slowed by soreness in his right shoulder. Looking back, Pierce wishes he would have skipped All-Star weekend and taken more regular-season games to rest.
"If I had to do it all over again, knowing my age, my body, I would have missed more games to let my body heal instead of struggling through it," Pierce said. "It wears on you because it takes longer to heal."
Another problem: The Celtics could always count on playing well at the Garden. No longer is that the case. Boston lost only six of 41 home games in each of the past two seasons. This season, the Celtics are 23-14, including a dismal 3-11 record against teams with winning records.
"Now, teams are really comfortable coming in and beating us on our home floor," Pierce said. "It definitely is very surprising that we haven't defended it as well."
Through it all, however, Pierce remains confident the Celtics will get better in the playoffs. They won't have to worry about playing back-to-back games in the postseason, a concern for any aging team. The playoffs also become more of a half-court game, which could benefit the defensive-minded Celtics.
"To be honest with you, I think our team is really built for the playoffs," Pierce said. "You get into a series, the game slows down. …The scoring isn't as much. I just think that's the way our team is built. We got a lot of older vets. That's what playoff basketball is – executing in the half court."
The Celtics realize they've lost some of their aura. No longer are opposing teams worried about walking into the Garden. Garnett still pounds his chest and snarls, but no one's cowering in fear. So what's left for the Celtics to cling to? Their experience and a belief in themselves. Whether that's good enough to carry them deep into the playoffs remains to be seen.
"I know we can beat all the teams in the top in a series," Pierce said. "I know that if we play the way we know we can play consistently over a series … we have the pieces right here to win a championship."
LeBron vs. Durant
LeBron James(notes) and Kevin Durant(notes) entered the weekend with their scoring race too close to call. James leads by less than a tenth of a point, averaging 29.726 points to Durant's 29.662. Even more remarkable: Both are averaging 20.1 shots and 10.1 free-throw attempts per game.
Both players have insisted they're focused only on their respective teams' playoff runs, not the scoring race. James recently said he could probably win the scoring title every year if he wanted. So what would Durant average if he focused only on scoring?
"That's a good question," Durant said. "To be honest, I really don't know – 33, 34 [points], I don't know."
Cousins' stock improving?
Kentucky freshman John Wall is the favorite to go first in the June draft while Ohio State guard Evan Turner has his own supporters, namely Kobe Bryant(notes). But could Wall's teammate, freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins, also challenge for one of the top two picks?
Questions about Cousins' attitude and maturity have hung over him, but at 6-foot-11, 270 pounds, Cousins also has tremendous potential to become a force in the post. One NBA general manager said if he had the No. 1 pick he'd seriously consider taking the 19-year-old Cousins, who averaged 15.1 points and 9.8 rebounds in just 23.5 minutes per game.
With a lot of lottery teams already owning point guards, Cousins could become a draft-night surprise.
"It all depends on who's picking," the GM said. "He's talented enough to be the No. 1 pick. I'm sure the team that does pick No. 1 will spend time to cover their bases. It all depends on how the lottery falls. Wall, Turner, Cousins? To me, there is no consensus guy. You'll learn a lot about an organization by how they draft. Last year, it was easy. At No. 2, it got murky. Now, it's murky at the top."
The jockeying for seeding in the Western Conference playoffs figures to go down to the final day of the regular season. Within the past week, the Denver Nuggets went from second to fifth. Regardless of how it plays out, even the Los Angeles Lakers won't have it easy in the first round with a possible matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder. "It's crazy," Kobe Bryant said. "The Western Conference is tough." Said Phoenix Suns coach Alvin Gentry: "The last two games could determine if you have home court or be in seventh place." …Will Celtics forward Paul Pierce opt out of the $21 million final year of his contract this summer in hopes of re-signing a longer deal with the team? "Everybody knows I want to retire a Boston Celtic," Pierce said. "I haven't really put too much thought into it. I'm going to play the season out and see what happens. I want to be here. I want to be on a team that still has a chance to win a championship. I would like to sign an extension this summer, but if that doesn't work, I'll talk to my agent, sit down and see what my options are." …With Kenyon Martin(notes) trying to work his way back from a knee injury, some Denver Nuggets players quietly grumbled this week about the organization not adding another big man. The Nuggets were unsuccessful in their attempts to acquire Tyrus Thomas(notes) and Aaron Gray(notes) before the trade deadline when Martin was still healthy. Denver considered bringing in a free agent like Mark Blount(notes), Mikki Moore(notes) or Brian Cook(notes) to help during Martin's absence, but believed none of the alternatives would take minutes away from Johan Petro(notes) and Malik Allen(notes), who are on their roster. Adding to the Nuggets' problems, Chris Andersen(notes) injured his left ankle injury against Portland on Thursday night. …An NBA source said Kansas freshman forward Xavier Henry is expected to put his name in the draft soon. …The NCAA's new rule gives college underclassmen just one week (April 30-May 8) to work out for NBA teams before the deadline for them to pull their names out of the draft. Not surprisingly, one NBA GM thinks the rule is ridiculous, especially considering the players can't work out on days they have class. "Nobody wins that way," the GM said. "Ultimately, the kids are the ones that are forced to make a decision. The system is being designed to stop them from opportunities that can benefit them. It's a risk designed by college coaches to limit underclassmen going into the draft."