NEW YORK — If this is indeed their first-round playoff opponent, the team that just soundly beat them for the second time in five days by hitting 22 3-pointers in the two contests and winning by a total of 34 points, the Celtics believe they’re ready.
We have seen this before, the banged-up Celtics lumbering to the end of the regular season, nursing injuries, withstanding blowout losses, and looking primed for a first-round elimination. And then when mid-April arrives, the motivation returns and the Celtics give their faithful their money’s worth with another enthralling run.
At this point they are going to have to defy logic because they looked nothing close to imposing in Sunday’s 108-89 loss to the streaking but equally banged-up New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
Boston’s defense would have made the New Orleans Saints’ secondary proud, as it allowed 11 first-half 3-pointers, two by reserve Chris Copeland and two by Steve Novak, whose express purpose in any NBA game is shooting 3-pointers. Yet the Celtics refused to defend and were embarrassed in the process.
Afterward they were defiant, promising major resistance to any playoff opponent, even the Knicks, even the Heat. If the only thing encouraging the Celtics against more formidable opponents is good health, then they will be dumped in the first round.
The Celtics are hardly a defensive team right now. They are getting pounded by hot-shooting teams. The number of open shots they yield is mind-boggling and when they do decide to play defense, they foul. Reserves J.R. Smith and Copeland combined for 19 free throws. The Celtics shot 23 as a team.
Yet, they feel secure about a first-round matchup with the Knicks that would begin in about three weeks here at MSG. Their self-assuredness is not delusional at this juncture, but it’s close.
“If Kevin [Garnett] doesn’t play [it’s a bad matchup],” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “We’ll play anybody, any time when we’re right. I heard this same rhetoric [about the Celtics being done] last year before the playoffs started and we were one game away from the Finals. So we’ll see, but we’ve got to get healthy first. We’ve got to get Kevin back. We’ve got to get Courtney [Lee] healthy. Then we’ll roll it out and see how everybody lines up. We like us against any of these teams.”
While the Celtics’ confidence appears to be at a season high, it had to be deflating to hear the Knicks fans chant “Boston [stinks]” as New York was building a 20-point second-half lead. The Knicks no longer fear the Celtics, and thoroughly enjoy pounding their rivals regardless of their injuries or lack of depth.
Overtaking the Celtics in the Atlantic Division was New York’s primary goal this season and they are about to snap the Celtics’ five-year reign in the division and the Celtics could care less about that. But they also can’t rely on recent history and Kevin Garnett and playoff intensity to miraculously whip them into an elite contender.
It doesn’t work that way. Good playoff work habits are built in the regular season, and these final nine games are about maintaining good defensive habits.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Pierce, who scored 24 points with a season-high 15 rebounds. “I definitely didn’t expect a showing like this coming into Madison Square Garden, especially the way they did us in our home building, especially being a team we may face in the playoffs. If this is a team we face in the playoffs, they are going to have tremendous confidence versus us, so who knows, when we see them in the playoffs they might feel like they have our number.”
Garnett was expected to participate in Sunday’s shootaround in New York but didn’t. Rivers said his center’s left ankle is feeling “a lot better,” meaning he could be back in the lineup within the week. Right now the Celtics are banking on Garnett’s healthy presence to change their fortunes, but their transformation to a good playoff team has to begin earlier, such as Monday night in Minnesota. If it doesn’t, their confidence will be just “rhetoric.”
“We like how we matchup with the Knicks, we like how we match up with Miami, we like how we match up with pretty much anybody in the East,” Pierce said. “So whether it be [the Knicks], whether it be Indiana, Miami, right now we just want to try to get into the playoffs playing well.”
So the Celtics can’t get caught in the rut of waiting for Garnett to return while his healthier teammates decline and wilt. Avery Bradley just finished a month in which he shot 36 percent and averaged 8.5 points. Rivers has to find a way to get Lee and Jason Terry sparked before it’s too late. Confidence is admirable, but the numbers lately describe a team in decline.
“I feel like when we’re healthy we can compete with anybody,” forward Jeff Green said. “We can’t get down on ourselves thinking just because they beat us the last couple of times that if we play them again we have no chance. We have a chance whoever we match up against.”