I saw a tweet from a Celtics fan Wednesday morning that, paraphrased out at more than 140 characters, read, "Wasted too much money to sit at tonight's game. Saw Terrence Williams, Jordan Crawford, Shavlik Randolph. Swore I could have been at a Maine Red Claws game."
With all due respect to that salty franchise up Interstate 95, imitating the Celtics' minor league team is less than ideal. Tuesday night's 100-85 loss to the Knicks, Boston's fifth straight defeat, was as bad a showing the Celtics have made at TD Garden in years. The Celtics committed 20 turnovers and allowed 15 offensive rebounds. Starting point guard Avery Bradley did not record an assist.
Playing without Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Courtney Lee, Jared Sullinger, and Leandro Barbosa, the Celtics never had a chance, and that's despite Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire being absent for New York. The game felt like it was being held in another city, a roster of newbies and fill-ins playing for a listless crowd that couldn't wait to file out to Canal St. for a nightcap.
The game was so unwatchable that it brought back memories of the most repugnant Celtics basketball in recent memory. As a reporter in my second season on the job I covered the 2006-07 Celtics team that lost 18 consecutive games. The streak was surprising in total, but the results of each individual "L" were not. After the first loss in the streak, an 87-79 defeat in Orlando on Jan. 7, 2007, Celtics guard Tony Allen said, "We as a team, we understand that we dug ourselves in. In the first half we were flat. We have to go look at film, take constructive criticism, see what you can do to correct it."
It was more of the same for the next month. Looking through the old notebook, Celtics coach Doc Rivers used words like "rhythm" and "effort" and "flat" to describe his team over the next 17 losses. So it was a little eerie when Rivers dropped this quote during Tuesday's press conference.
"I thought we were flat," said Rivers. "We didn’t play with a lot of energy, and I always say that’s something I’ve got to do or get them to do right."
What Rivers didn't say, and what he couldn't say during that 18-game losing streak, is that the Celtics didn't put enough talent on the floor to win Tuesday night. The Celtics started Bradley, Crawford, Brandon Bass, Paul Pierce, and Jeff Green against the Knicks. Terrence Williams played nearly 23 minutes. Randolph played almost as much as Chris Wilcox, who is the only backup big man on the team that's been here longer than three weeks. Those aren't the Red Claws, but it's not a playoff team, either.
For the first game of that '07 losing streak the Celtics started Delonte West, Tony Allen, Wally Szczerbiak, Ryan Gomes, and Al Jefferson. Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, and Gerald Green came off the bench. They got Pierce back from injury 16 games later and broke the streak shortly after, but the similarities between the lineups are hard to ignore. Those 2006-'07 Celtics had a couple of players who would carve out very good NBA careers and more, which is what Bradley should do despite his dud Tuesday night. So should Green, despite his hollow double-double vs. the Knicks. But potential doesn't win basketball games. It doesn't make sitting through them any more palatable.
The question is whether or not Tuesday night's game was a glimpse of the future or an anomaly. There will come a time very soon when Garnett and Pierce will be gone or playing at nowhere near the level we're used to. Tuesday's game might go in the win column for the camp that was happy to see the PP and KG stick around at the trade deadline (see what they would be without them?), but is the franchise better off than it was in 2006-'07? Would you rather have a young core of Rondo, Bradley, Sullinger, Jeff Green, and Lee or one comprised of Allen, Rondo, Jefferson, Perkins, Gomes, and Gerald Green? Either way, it's clear the Celtics aren't fun to watch without two or more superstars pulling more than their share of the weight.
Asked about missing Garnett for two more weeks (would you be surprised if it's longer?), Rivers said, "Guys, I think you’ve been around me long enough. Kevin’s not playing. I don’t worry about it. I really don’t. And I don’t with our guys. We didn’t play well tonight. I’m not going to go back and say, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got two more weeks of this.'"
Rivers doesn't have to say he's worried, nor should he say that a serious lack of talent is going to be the true difference between winning and losing games over the next several weeks. That should be painfully clear. What's not clear – heck what's not even on the radar yet – is just how the Celtics get out of this.
Knicks players and even some beat reporters walked around with chips on their shoulders following the win, spouting a "how-would-you-like-to-face-us-in-the-playoffs-now?" mantra that is deserved, considering how Celtics fans have been saying for weeks that their team should beat anyone but Miami in a playoff series.
Maybe Garnett will get right and right the ship, making a playoff series with New York much more even. Either way, what's evident from Tuesday night is that the Celtics are awfully close to that line that separates being competitive and dreadful, from being a team of plucky underdogs to one at a serious disadvantage. Winning streaks without your star players are fun, but a glimpse into the not-so-distant past suggests the losing streaks aren't nearly as entertaining.