CLEVELAND – As the final indignities of one more stunningly embarrassing evening ended for the Boston Celtics, a predictable picture played out on the bench: The Celtics’ stars sitting for garbage time, blank stares, listening to the surround sound of a Kevin Garnett lecture. On one knee, his back to the Cavaliers, Garnett barked a private plan to Paul Pierce and Ray Allen about a return to glory.
As much as anyone, KG’s voice rules these Celtics. They play at his speed, his fever pitch and ultimately rise and fall with the tone of his talent. When the Celtics were the most destructive there was a grudging acceptance of Garnett’s relentless ramblings on the floor, his penchant for starting small skirmishes. His greatest gift can be his greatest burden. Sometimes, these Celtics can be exhausting to everyone else. Sometimes, they’re just exhausting to themselves.
As LeBron James passed Boston in the break-down lane on Friday night, dropping 38 points and the Celtics behind the Cavs in the Eastern Conference standings, the defending champions are basketball’s most perplexing problem.
From a 27-2 start and a candidate to chase 70 victories, the Celtics have transformed into free-fall losers of seven of nine games. This has spiraled from a bad run for these Celtics to something far more damning: a crisis of identity. Around the NBA, officials are wondering: With a bad bench and an aging lineup, did the Celtics suddenly reach an expiration date as a championship favorite?
With so many suggesting that the Celtics are physically worn, here’s something else to consider: How about emotionally exhausted? This is the blessing and curse of KG. He’s a dervish of barking and bickering, yelling at everyone and no one. Night after night, he works himself into a frenzy to play the game. He seldom relaxes on the court, on the charters. Sometimes, he’ll just sit up wired on long flights home. If he doesn’t sleep, Doc Rivers once said, no one sleeps.
This has trickled down on the team, too. Pierce is incorrigible on the court. No one talks like him. Opponents have grown angry over the way that even the marginal Celtics seem so emboldened to behave this way, too. All in all, emotion fueled a ferocity for these Celtics, but it’s hard to believe that passion could sustain itself in the long run.
“If you keep punching your gas pedal as hard as you can, all the time, eventually you’re going to run out of gas,” one rival NBA general manager said. “You can only do that hype and talking for so long. You have to maintain a pace and a certain emotional level to stay up there for a long time. You can’t scream non-stop forever.”
More and more, the Celtics are dependent on Garnett, Pierce and Allen to carry them. Rajon Rondo has struggled lately. The Celtics are susceptible to bigger frontlines. The bench is killing them. They need help, but there’s little on the way. As history’s shown, Stephon Marbury’s arrival destroys basketball franchises. This has been incredible. The mere suggestion of Starbury has blown up Boston. Truth be told, Marbury will probably never be freed in New York.
What GM Danny Ainge wants is a shooter off the bench, but he’s struggling to find one. League sources say he made a bid for the Orlando Magic’s J.J. Redick recently, a guard he’s long coveted, but an offer of J.R. Giddens and Gabe Pruitt couldn’t come close to prying Redick. What’s more, Orlando isn’t motivated to fortify the Celtics. Suddenly, the Magic believe they can beat Boston. League executives say Ainge has become more persistent this week in searching out deals, but as a Western Conference executive said, “He just doesn’t have any players that anyone wants.”
Rivers insists he saw slippage late in the 19-game winning streak to suggest this slide was inevitable. As long as his boss gets him a boost on the bench, he’s trying to sell this sputter as a blessing. The Celtics appear destined to lose home court in the conference finals to Cleveland – and maybe Orlando, too – but Rivers had seen some of his players growing complacent, comfortable, and now he sees the sobering realization that’s washed over his locker room.
“This team hasn’t gone through anything,” Rivers said. “It’s been very easy for us. Sometimes you have to go through something to get to something. This team hasn’t. Last year we didn’t have this at all. And I was extremely concerned going into the playoffs. That was my one concern. We hadn’t been tested. We breezed through the season.
“Well, we can’t say that this year. We have gone through something. You find out a lot about your guys when you go through stretches like this … who wants to fight … who folds. So, it’s good for everybody.”
Suddenly, Boston isn’t so brazen. They aren’t so bold. This has been a champion that’s inspired a good deal of dislike around the NBA. Teams found them ungracious and unkind. Truth be told, they found them to be downright nasty.
“How you shut us up is you beat us,” Sam Cassell said. “That’s how you shut us up. The Knicks shut us up…Cleveland shut us up–nine teams shut us up. Beat us and you can shut us up.”
Nine teams and counting for the Celtics. They’re no longer chasing 70 victories and the Jordan Bulls this season. Now, they’re chasing LeBron and the Cavaliers. Out of nowhere, an identity crisis for the champions. As the rival GM said, you can’t just scream forever.