BOSTON -- Had the Celtics turned their 90-89 loss the other way, had they been celebrating their exit from the floor, it all would have been a mirage. On a cold Sunday when neither they nor the Lakers looked capable of playing to June, the Celtics demonstrated how far they've strayed from their championship success of two years ago.
Are they finished as contenders? Of course not.
Can they recover their old form over the next two months? Maybe not.
Preceding losses at Orlando and Atlanta leaves the Celtics with a three-game losing streak against contenders and a 6-8 January record in which they were outscored in a dozen of those fourth quarters. They're playing like a team without a bullpen, like they believe bad things will happen.
"With five minutes left, we went into the stall mode offensively, walked the ball up the floor, took forever to run stuff,'' said Boston coach DocRivers. "That's just not who we are.''
It's not who they want to be. Just compare them to the Lakers: This victory said little about the defending champions that we didn't know already. KobeBryant needed 20 shots for his 19 points while playing with a bad ankle and a broken finger, but when he squirmed up a contorting, well-defended keytop jumper like a shot-put from the heel of his hand to affect the final score with 7.3 seconds remaining, it was as entertaining and unsurprising as JackBauer winning a shootout at the end of "24.''
The only contender that is looking and acting like the real thing at the moment is the Cavaliers, who have already finished a season-sweep of the Lakers. The Lakers have been neither here nor there, but they prevailed Sunday because they don't have as much to fix over the second half of the season as their hosts. The Lakers opened up a 13-point lead by going early and often to center AndrewBynum, who spent the first quarter routinely beating the Celtics to his favorite spots deep in the post for 12 points (he would also finish with 19).
The Celtics came back fast on the young legs of TonyAllen (14 points) and All-Star point guard RajonRondo (21 points, 12 assists), which was fine for the momentary purposes of turning a 30-19 deficit at the start of the quarter into a 52-47 halftime advantage. Their energy was further responsible for building an 81-70 lead with 9:17 left to play. But there is little future in what they were doing because, in the end, it underlined what Boston's stars weren't doing.
RayAllen, after making a long jumper in the opening half-minute, went on to miss 8-of-9 from the field, including the buzzer-beating three that could have salvaged a win.
PaulPierce, who made a trio of timely threes in the second quarter, finished with 15 points without making a memorable drive to the basket. When he was whistled for a crucial offensive foul on a shortened burst against RonArtest while trying to protect an 89-88 lead with 27.5 seconds left, maybe Pierce didn't get the benefit of the call because he hadn't taken the ball inside all game, and so it looked as if pushing off was his only way of creating space for a fallaway jumper.
KevinGarnett provided 10 points and nine rebounds in 31 minutes.
When the Celtics were going hard to the basket in the second quarter, their 'Big Three' had nothing to do with it. Of course, those plays by Rondo and Tony Allen were creating enough time for him to update his Twitter at the three-point line before launching his uncontested shots. But, if the Celtics are playing hard and one or all of their triumvirate heart of Garnett, Pierce and Allen aren't in the middle of it, then doesn't it mean very little? Because Rondo and Tony Allen aren't going to carry Boston past Cleveland or Atlanta in May.
You're not going to read here that the Celtics are too old to contend, because they still have two months in which to recuperate from the knee injuries to Garnett and Pierce (who was scoped in late December yet missed only five games) and get their act together. Maybe they'll even make a midseason deal for KirkHinrich or another vibrant scorer/defender/ballhandler to lessen the burdens on the three big stars.
But any issue that doesn't involve Garnett, Pierce and Allen is a decoy that isn't worth mentioning. If the complaint is that RasheedWallace takes too many threes and earns too many T's, well, what do you expect? He's a 35 year old who has been playing far too many minutes and too large a role in place of Garnett.
For those who think 23-year-old Rondo can offset the difficulties of the Big Three, take a look at the stats: The Celtics are asking too much of Rondo. He is averaging almost as many shots as Allen and Pierce, and he is shooting more often per game than Garnett. Which means that the Celtics have turned into -- and surely played Sunday as if they are -- a perimeter team.
The hierarchy won't make sense unless Garnett regains his legs, because at the moment he is an extended jump shooter who is being outrebounded by AmareStoudemire (who is averaging 8.2 per game, by the way).
"He's just having to adjust his game,'' said Lakers coach PhilJackson of Garnett prior to this victory. "That's part of getting long in the tooth and having a few injuries, and some things just don't work as well and you have to adjust your game. But he's perfectly capable of that.''
Two years ago when Garnett, Pierce and Allen sat with Rivers in the Celtics locker room for the first time, they began discussing how each of them would adapt his game to the needs of the team. It is time now for another of those summits. Will Garnett play more in the low post until he grow agile? Will Pierce post up more often? Are there other ways to make the best of what they have left? Two years ago they held their summit from a position of strength and optimism; today they must make adjustments from their current state of weakness.