Interim Celtics head coach John Carroll believed last night's game against the Knicks was more important than most midseason matchups.
He knew it was a game between teams in transition. He knew both were, in essence, competing for playoff berths, with Boston seventh in the Eastern Conference and New York eighth. He tried to pretend it was April, with the postseason, not the All-Star break, a couple of weeks away. Before the game, Carroll tried to convey his sense of urgency to the Celtics.
"No matter what's happened this week or what people think or what the perception may be, right now we're in seventh place," said Carroll in his pregame message. "[New York] is the team behind us. And if we win this game, it's really like winning more than just a game."
Carroll also knew the game would be the first true test of his coaching tenure. In the immediate aftermath of Jim O'Brien's resignation, Carroll knew Boston played well in a loss to Detroit Wednesday night, with the game the best refuge from reality. Unfortunately for Carroll, the results at the FleetCenter last night were all too real. New York routed Boston, 92-74, with the Celtics showing more apathy than urgency.
"I was terribly concerned [about this game]," said Carroll, who is still looking for his first win as head coach. "The other night, when you had the coaching change, you can almost write the script on those kind of games. You know how they go. The team plays kind of unusually hard, unusually well, typically. This was a game where it was just a game. There was no script, per se.
"I was concerned about the week, and everything that's gone on. Now, we're kind of back to reality here. I was really concerned about this particular game because [the Knicks] are on our heels, and I think they smelled blood a little bit."
What opponent wouldn't have "smelled blood" with the way Boston played before a dissatisfied sellout crowd at the FleetCenter? Boston took 3 minutes 39 seconds to score, signaling a long night ahead. The Celtics shot 26 percent in the first and trailed by 7 points (23-16) at the end of the quarter. Although Boston briefly took the lead in the second quarter, it never enjoyed an advantage greater than 4 points.
New York closed the second quarter with a 14-5 run and entered halftime ahead, 50-42. Fans sensed a profound lack of intensity and booed. The only player who produced an honest effort was Mark Blount, who scored 18 of his career-high 22 points in the first half and added 11 rebounds to his final line. Going through the motions would have been a kind assessment of his teammates' play. Stephon Marbury saw a weak squad and sensed opportunity.
"I played against the team two times previous," said Marbury (17 points, 7 assists), who was with the Suns when they faced the Celtics earlier in the season. "They didn't play the same way they normally play. They had a lot more intensity. They never, ever quit. [Last night], when they were out there playing, they didn't look like they were out there familiar with each other. They just looked like they were playing as opposed to playing the way they know how to."
The Knicks opened the third with a 12-4 run, building a 62-46 lead with 8:19 remaining in the quarter. There would be no comeback for the Celtics as they shot 23 percent in the third and finished the quarter trailing by 21 (78-57).
Boston fell behind by as many as 27 points, with 9:14 left in the fourth. Shortly thereafter, Paul Pierce missed a dunk then threw up an airball from 3-point range. Pierce finished with 12 points on 3-for-16 shooting, a performance that typified the poor showing by the Celtics. Carroll removed his starters midway through the fourth quarter.
"I'd be lying if I said [O'Brien's resignation] didn't really bother me," said Pierce. "I still haven't had a chance to talk to Coach O'Brien and understand what was going through his mind. It's been a frustrating year all around. But at the same time I've got to remain positive through all the highs and lows and get through it."
The Celtics can only hope their performance last night was an aberration. But they may know better.
When it was mentioned how resilient the Celtics have been in the face of adversity, Walter McCarty said, "What team has been really resilient? What are you talking about? This is not the same team. We had a team that was very resilient and could dig in. This is a brand new team. We have to develop that character."