With the game on the line late in the fourth quarter vs. the Knicks Thursday night, the Celtics put the ball in the hands of their best offensive player. Celtics coach Doc Rivers drew up a lob for Jeff Green and trusted Paul Pierce to get the play started. But Pierce fumbled a simple handoff with Jason Terry and turned the ball over with 1:06 remaining. With the Celtics down 89-86 with 7.1 seconds left, Pierce had a chance for redemption. Rivers drew up a play for Pierce to run to the corner and then pop out for a 3-pointer, but once again Pierce had the ball stripped, sealing the Celtics' 5th straight loss.
For both the player and the team, the miscues were emblematic of a larger issue.
The Celtics can't score, which is increasingly obvious with each loss they suffer. During this losing streak they've scored 78, 99 (in overtime), 88, 90, and 86 points. Overall this season the Celtics are 27th out of 30 NBA teams in offensive rating, scoring 101.9 points per 100 possessions. By contrast, the Knicks are 3d in the NBA with 110.7 points per 100 possessions.
Rivers was pleased with his team's effort Thursday night while acknowledging that the Celtics struggled to put the ball in the basket.
"This was a hard played game," said Rivers. "This was a playoff type game. Baskets were hard to come by. Guys were flying out at each other. This is the way the playoffs look. And all you hope is you make your open shots, and we didn't."
With all due respect to the coach, it's not just about making open shots. The Celtics came out with the same energy that propelled them to a 102-96 win over the Knicks on Jan. 7, but unlike in that game they couldn't sustain it. Boston attempted 46 shots in the first half Thursday, but the tempo of the game changed in the second half, and the Celtics finished the game with just 76 field goal attempts. That stat explains how the home team held New York to 39 percent shooting for the game and lost.
"If we get good shots and wide open layups and a lot of the shots that are not falling, maybe you can say we are getting tight or something," said Pierce. "But when it’s just poor execution, it’s poor execution. On the turnovers, we’ve got to set screens. We’ve got to do things harder."
Scoring woes aren't anything new for the Celtics. They were 27th in the league in offensive rating last season and 18th the year before. The last time the Celtics had a rating in the league's top half was the 2008-09 season, when they were 6th.
The troubling aspect to all of this is that there's no answer in sight. The Celtics can't rely on Pierce to score as easily as he used to. He's shooting 33 percent during his last five games and has turned the ball over 13 times compared to 18 assists. He's a step slower this season despite being in better shape than last year. Pierce had 19 points in the first half of Thursday night's game but finished with 22. He attempted just three shots from the field in the second half and missed them all.
The Knicks made it more difficult on Pierce in the second half and tried to force him to give the ball up. Teams are going to do that when Pierce gets it going early, but Boston's options beyond their captain are limited. Rajon Rondo had 22 points and turned in a triple-double, but he and Pierce were the only players in double figures. The Celtics got just 22 points off their bench in the game. It's safe to say that Jason Terry has not come as advertised.
Afterward, Rivers praised his team's effort.
"I don't think either team played great, but if I had that effort every night I'd be very happy," he said.
That's a step in the right direction after listless losses to Hornets, Pistons, and Cavaliers. But effort isn't going to bring Pierce's scoring touch back. The talk all season has been that the Celtics need to find another big man. A bigger help, in both the short and long term, might be to find someone who can put the ball in the basket.