Some players looked exhausted, others uninterested. A five-day break began as soon as the game ended, and they played as if it couldn’t come fast enough, sloppily trudging through 48 minutes of basketball.
The buzzer rescued them: Boston 71, Chicago 69. That’s not a misprint. It isn’t a typo. Ask the fans who came to TD Garden Wednesday night. They’ll attest to the ugliness that played out before them.
The Celtics scraped out a win and headed into the All-Star Break having won eight of their last nine games, despite having lost three players to season-ending injuries in the last 15 days. They need a break, right now — badly.
“So many things have gone on over the last couple weeks for us, just physically, mentally,” Paul Pierce said. “This is the perfect time for a break.”
Kevin Garnett hit a crucial baseline jumper with 19.8 seconds left to give the Celtics a 3-point lead, helping to seal the win.
And Garnett had the option of not even playing.
After playing in a triple-overtime game against Denver Sunday, coach Doc Rivers thought he shouldn’t even bring Garnett to Charlotte to play against the Bobcats the following day, but he did.
Rivers approached Garnett about not playing against the Bulls because he wanted to give his weary legs a chance to rest.
Garnett figured that if everybody else wasn’t given that option, then he shouldn’t be able to take it either.
“Fortunately, he rested just enough that he was strong enough down the stretch,” Rivers said.
Afterwards, Garnett, who had 12 points and 11 rebounds, thought differently about the potential night off he could’ve had.
“I should’ve taken it,” Garnett said.
Each team would’ve gladly used a breather. Like the Celtics, the Bulls locker room resembles an infirmary, with Derrick Rose (knee) and Kirk Hinrich (elbow) out. Each team was dog tired.
“You definitely noticed,” said Pierce, who had 8 points on 2-for-12 shooting. “There was one point where both teams missed layup after layup after layup right in a row.
“And we just looked up and said, ‘It’s one of those days, one of those games.’ You’ve got two teams anxious to get to the break, but still emotionally involved in the game.
“We knew this was going to be an ugly game.”
So it was.
What transpired wasn’t basketball so much as an exercise on how not to play it.
The game began with each team air-balling its opening shot – and that set the tone.
There were enough bricks to build a city, enough poor decisions that a sobriety test might have seemed necessary. It was competitive only because each team kept somehow playing worse.
The Bulls shot 36.5 percent, the Celtics 36.8.
Rivers was asked if one of his players had any stamina left.
“I don’t think anyone did,” he said. “I’m serious. On both teams.”
Of course, the last game before the All-Star break can be odd, with some players mentally checked out. But with injuries taking their toll, both Boston and Chicago were equally beat up.
Rivers said he told his players before the game that they’d find a way to win; he just didn’t know how.
“We’ve just got to figure it out, during the game,” he said.
The Celtics trailed, 49-43, entering the final quarter. Soon, that deficit was 54-47. That’s when the Celtics figured out how they’d win.
Brandon Bass turned a steal into a one-handed slam, then he buried a 19-foot jumper. Garnett recorded a steal and canned a mid-range shot. After scoring a layup, Avery Bradley stole the ball and fed Jason Terry, who made a short jumper.
The Celtics led, 57-54.
“That just goes to show you: Our defense is where it’s supposed to be,” said Terry, who had 12 points off the bench.
Marco Belinelli, who hit the game-winner for Chicago when these teams last met, had a chance to tie the score on a last-second shot, but Terry blocked it.
The Celtics’ point total marked their third-lowest in a win in the shot-clock era. And between the second and third quarters, the Celtics scored a total of 19 points, which tied for the third-lowest point total between consecutive quarters in NBA history.
Standing before a scrum of reporters inside the locker room, Garnett was asked how he felt after the win.
“I’m tired. I’m tired. I’m tired,” he said.
Garnett heads to Houston to make his 15th All-Star appearance, and he announced that it would “definitely” be his last.
But he has two years left on his contract, it was pointed out.
“Y’all don’t know what I know,” a cryptic Garnett replied.
He added, “I’m not going to act like I’ve got more All-Star games in me. I’m actually going to enjoy this one with friends and family.”
So the Celtics head into the break, four games above .500, three bodies down. Those who remain will receive a much-needed chance to rest and recuperate. But decisions loom. Team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has holes to patch, positions to fill.
The Celtics who emerged from the Garden tunnel Wednesday could be completely rearranged when the trade deadline passes Feb 21. Or, the roster could remain very much intact, with a few changes here or there.
All that was certain when the buzzer sounded on the first half of their season against Chicago was that it couldn’t have sounded any sooner.