All right, Celtics fans, which comes first: the second victory for Doc Rivers and the lads or the first sighting of a Greg Oden replica jersey?
If you didn't see this one, but you saw the one before this, or the one before that, then, in essence, you didn't miss a thing. Once again, the Celtics made a game of it. Once again, it came down to the final minutes, possessions, shots, and rebounds. Once again, the Celtics came up lacking.
The result was another fist to the team's solar plexus, a 92-89 loss to the Orlando Magic before 14,379 remaining believers at TD Banknorth Garden. The defeat dropped the Celtics to 1-6, their worst start to a season since 1978-79. But, as Paul Pierce sees it, "We believe we are better than 1-6." And, as Bill Parcells would say, "You are what you are."
And what the Celtics are now, and have been for a while, is a team that has the closing mentality of Heathcliff Slocumb. Of their six losses, three have been by 4 points or fewer, and two others have been by 7. Last night, they led only once, 84-83, and the lead lasted all of 65 seconds. That's when the Magic became the closers and the Celtics became the closees.
Orlando converted on six straight possessions, starting with a twisting baseline drive by Grant Hill (18 points) with a degree of difficulty that would scare away Greg Louganis. Then, after a Delonte West miss, came arguably the key possession of the game. Inarguably, it was the key possession of the final 61 seconds.
With 1:01 left, Trevor Ariza was fouled by Kendrick Perkins. Ariza had played well for Orlando off the bench, making some big baskets when the Celtics were erasing an 8-point deficit (which seemed like 15), and he made the first free throw. He missed the second. But the long rebound did not go to any Celtic. Instead, Hedo Turkoglu outleaped Pierce and came away with the ball.
Some 18-plus seconds later, the irrepressible Jameer Nelson (24 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds) knifed through the Boston defense for a layup to make it 88-84. The Celtics blew their pick-and-roll coverage on the play, leaving Ryan Gomes to guard Nelson. That isn't going to work.
The Turkoglu rebound was, well, gigantic. "It was a huge play for us," understated Orlando coach Brian Hill.
Rivers also saw it as a big play.
"That was a killer," the coach said. "You can make a case that that was the biggest rebound of the game -- and we didn't get it. Not boxing out on a free throw? It can't happen."
Pierce fell on the sword, which was a fitting gesture. He had one of those nights in which both teams benefitted from his play. Through three quarters, he was dreadful. Then he awoke and scored 15 points in the fourth to lead the comeback, but also turned it over twice and didn't get the big rebound.
"I should have done a better job boxing out," said Pierce, who finished with 21 points (6 of 20) and only 4 rebounds, well below his average of 11.7. He's 12 of 41 from the field in the last two games.
Nelson's basket (88-84) came with 42.6 seconds to play. Pierce made it 88-86 on a power layup with 31.7 seconds left, necessitating another back-breaking basket from Nelson, who was 11 of 17 from the field. This one was a 22-footer that swished through with 12 ticks left on the clock. Pierce missed a three, and Dwight Howard and Nelson added free throws surrounding a Pierce 3-pointer to account for the final score.
A win would have been a welcome respite from all these gut-wrenchers: the blown 25-point lead on Saturday, the Opening Night loss to the Hornets, even the losses to Utah and Washington. But Boston allowed Orlando to come out of the box at 5-0 and build an 11-point lead before the game was six minutes gone.
The Celtics spent the rest of the evening hanging around, as they like to say, and then waiting for the push at the end to put them over the top.
They're still waiting.
The loss also spoiled the NBA debut of Leon Powe, last night's designated "silver lining," who had 10 points and 7 rebounds.
Publicly, the Celtics are saying the right things. Pierce said while the players are understandably frustrated, the mood on the team is still upbeat and that the players are looking forward to today's practice to continue working.
Rivers said he still likes his team, still believes in his team, still thinks he has a good team, still thinks it will turn things around and start to win. By way of explanation, he also said he knows people think he's crazy.