It sure felt like the beginning of the end
The Celtics' playoff quest is just getting started, and it feels like it's already over.
The Celtics don't have Kevin Garnett and they are not going to repeat. They are in for a bloody death and it's just a matter of who plays the executioner. It could be Cleveland or it could be Orlando.
But Chicago? The 41-41 Bulls?
The Celtics dropped a stinkbomb on North Station yesterday. Coming out flatter than Tommy Heinsohn's rookie haircut, the champs lost the first game of their title defense, 105-103, in overtime against Chicago.
Remember draft night, 2007? That was when everybody around here was moaning about not getting Greg Oden or Kevin Durant and we were wondering what was the point of trading for Ray Allen?
It was all doom and destruction. A team with Paul Pierce, Allen, Rajon Rondo, and Kendrick Perkins? How good could the Celtics possibly be?
Say hello to your 2009 playoff team. Without Garnett, the Celtics yesterday looked like candidates for a first-round bounce, and coach Doc Rivers was steaming after the loss.
"To think that we worked on transition 'D' for two days and the first play of the game [Joakim] Noah gets a dunk - now, that was extremely disappointing," said Rivers. "You'd think, first playoff game, you'd be ready and up. And I just thought we kind of showed up and played the game. And then all of a sudden we got into a fight. And one thing I'd say about our guys, they join in. But at home, you're supposed to start it."
It was a tad embarrassing. The defending champs started this season 27-2. They won 19 consecutive games. They were indomitable at home and up until about three days ago we all thought they might make another magic run.
But that was when Garnett was part of the picture. And now his absence is killing them, physically and emotionally.
KG sat on the bench for the first half of the game. Then he was gone. Rivers didn't like it when he was asked about Garnett leaving the scene. The ever-affable coach delivered a latter-day version of Rick Pitino's infamous "not walking through that door" nutty.
"Guys, Kevin is not playing in this playoffs," said the good doctor, repeating what he first announced Thursday. "I'm not answering Kevin Garnett questions.
"I didn't even notice, honestly, until someone told me that he wasn't on the bench, and I could care less. Hell, he was on the bench in the first half and we were down 8 points. So this is about the players in uniform."
One of those players was Ray Allen, who looked older than baby Benjamin Button, making 1 of 12 shots, scoring 4 points in 39 minutes. Another was Paul Pierce, who scored 23 but clanged a free throw that would have won it with 2.6 seconds left in regulation.
Boston's star of the day was Rajon Rondo (29 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists), but he was countered by Rookie of the Year-in-waiting Derrick Rose, who scored 36 points with 11 assists. Part of the University of Memphis's meltdown at the free throw line in last year's NCAA championship game (which caused many sleepless nights for John Calipari), Rose went 12 for 12 from the stripe against the Green.
Playing in his first NBA tournament game, Rose was absolutely fearless. Ditto for Noah, who snatched 17 rebounds. The Bulls were not intimidated. They were not afraid. And they shocked the Garden masses, who expect only victory when the Celtics play at home in the playoffs.
It's always convenient to blame the officials when your team loses - and Bennett Salvatore certainly had his moments - but Rivers wasn't having any of that, either.
"Our guys were complaining, and it's the first thing I squashed," said the coach. "It ain't the refs. The refs had nothing, nothing to do with this game. It was us. And we've got to compete. We've got to play."
Pierce said the fellows got an earful from their coach.
"He just didn't feel like the sense of urgency was there," said the captain. "We understood that, so we have to expect a better game [in] Game 2 and the rest of the series now that we got hit in the mouth first game."
The whole day was a horrid reminder of just how much Garnett changed everything. Nobody was fired up about a Boston team led by Pierce and Allen - and that's when they had a fantastic young talent in Al Jefferson. Garnett is the man who made the Celtics champs. And now he is gone and this playoff quest feels doomed. Once mighty and feared, the 2009 playoff Celtics are the Little Train That Could.
Sure, they can come back and beat the Bulls. First-round extinction remains unlikely. But the thrill is gone. No happy ending this time.
Cedric Maxwell, the ex-Celtic and team radio analyst, thinks he might have the answer.
"I've got this stalker guy," said Max. "He's about 47 years old and he followed me home the other night. He says he's been hearing voices and that the voices are telling him he needs to play for the Celtics. He keeps asking me for Wyc's number and Danny's number [managing partner Wyc Grousbeck and president Danny Ainge]. He asked me if I'd pay for his mother's apartment.
"Then he showed up at my place and asked if I would shoot hoops with him. I keep telling him, 'You can't follow me home. I cannot help you.' But he says the voices are telling him to play for the Celtics. Imagine that story: 'Max finds guy on street to replace KG.' "
Rivers doesn't want to hear about it. Garnett is not walking through that door. And as Game 1 demonstrated, the Celtics aren't going anywhere. That's what the voices in our own heads are telling us.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.