With their team down more than 20 points and with the game clock winding down toward a loss in Game 6, Celtics fans stood and chanted “Let’s Go Celtics” for what must have been three or four minutes. It was a sign of solidarity, a sign of support for a group of players who collectively may have played their last game at TD Garden.
“It was unbelievable,” said Rajon Rondo. “That just shows we have the best fans in sports, in the whole game of basketball.”
The gesture might have been surprising anywhere but here, but Boston fans are fiercely loyal. They support their own, and they’ve embraced this team as just that. Despite the mercenary aspect of the whole thing when this collection of players was brought together five seasons ago, the Celtics’ four star players are now a permanent part of the fabric here. It’s now easier to remember Kevin Garnett for his big moments in five seasons as a Celtic than for anything he did in 12 seasons in Minnesota. We expect Garnett, Ray Allen, Rondo, and Paul Pierce to produce in big moments because we’ve seen them do it in the playoffs over and over again.
Which is why Game 6 was so disappointing. With a chance to eliminate the Miami Heat and earn a berth in the NBA Finals, the Celtics didn’t show up on their home floor. And because they laid an egg in their most crucial game of the season, they may have cost themselves a chance at another title.
It’s tempting to give a pass to this eminently root-able bunch and praise them for making it this far. They weren’t supposed to be here, weren’t supposed to make this Miami series competitive, and they aren’t expected to win the title should they advance to meet the Thunder.
“I would say most of the people in this room would have said, ‘Wow, they’re going to get to a Game 7? We’ll take it,'” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “That’s the way we have to view it. We won a game at theirs, they won here. Now we get to play for all the marbles. This team has not done it the easy way this year.”
Chalking Thursday’s loss up to “We’ll get ’em next time” would be letting the Celtics off the hook. Game 6 was there for the taking, and the Celtics gave it away. The team may have the best fans in the world, but those fans also shouldn’t be happy if the Celtics follow this loss with another on Saturday. If they play like they did in Game 6, they almost certainly will.
Consider some areas the Celtics were less than stellar in Thursday. Allowing LeBron James to score 45 points is a good place to start.
“I didn’t think we played him with a lot of force, though, honestly,” said Rivers. “Listen, he made great shots. But we can play better defense.”
A team built on championship-level defense didn’t show it Thursday, allowing Miami to shoot 49 percent from the field. James made 19 of 26 shots from the field, and not even the best player in the world does that without a little help. The trapping, suffocating schemes Boston used in their last three wins over the Heat were nowhere to be found.
Another area to take issue with is that the Celtics had a terrible start on their home court, getting themselves down by 10 points in large part due to poor ball movement. The Celtics had one assist to five turnovers in the first quarter. A team led by Rondo shouldn’t get themselves in that position.
“We have to get to the second and third option, and sometimes the fourth option,” said Ray Allen.
More often than not Thursday night, the ball stuck to the right hand of the first option and didn’t even find the second.
After coming up so clutch in Game 5, Pierce provided the final layer of disappointment in Game 6, making just 4 of 18 shots from the floor. He also took himself out of the game in the second quarter by picking up his third foul. He’s guarding James, but Pierce’s penchant to foul has become a problem.
“Paul is a big-game player,” said Rivers. “Game 7s are the biggest game you can possibly have. What I saw tonight, I thought he was ready for the game. He just didn’t have a great game tonight.”
Less than excellent games from Pierce, Rondo, and Garnett in particular are disappointing at this stage. The Celtics don’t need the 44 points they got from Rondo in Game 2. But a game like his 15 points, 15 assists, and 3 turnovers in Game 4 would have at least made it competitive. Pierce doesn’t have to shoot well — he made 38 percent of his shots in Boston wins in Game 3 and 4 — but he’s got to find some other way to be effective. In those two games, it was getting to the line a combined 13 times. In Game 6, Pierce had two free throw attempts while missing six 3-pointers.
Game 7 is wide open, but Celtics fans, the same ones who stood and cheered on their team until the better end, deserved a better effort in Game 6. The Celtics added extra games in both the Atlanta and Philadelphia series because of performances that could be described as lackadaisical. They did the same Thursday night. If they do make it to the Finals, they’ll have made their own path a lot more difficult. Their penchant for dragging things out is beginning to lose its charm.
The Celtics have come too far for moral victories. This is no time to praise them for making it this far. It’s easy to like this team, but it’s also not unreasonable to expect them to keep winning. They’ll need a much better showing Saturday night in order to make that happen.