The Celtics are one of the NBA's few underachieving teams without a built-in excuse. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry, all 35 or older, have yet to miss a game. The same goes for everyone in their nine-man rotation but Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, who were healthy and starting in the backcourt here Thursday. And yet their losing streak stretched to five games against the Knicks, who have been absent starting point guard Raymond Felton since Boxing Day.
"I told him,'' said All-Star center Tyson Chandler of his postgame chat with Felton, "Please come back so I can get a few dunks.'''
The Knicks won 89-86 without their leading playmaker and despite a combined 14-for-44 night from Carmelo Anthony (28 points on 28 shots) and sixth man J.R. Smith. "This was a playoff-style game,'' said Boston coach Doc Rivers, who was troubled to see New York making game-ending plays that remain beyond the reach of his Celtics. When Anthony passed out of a double team on the left block to Jason Kidd, the ball circulated like a double play around the horn until Smith finished with his only three-pointer in six attempts. That upped the Knicks' lead to 89-84 just 71 seconds before they would celebrate their first win in Boston since 2006.
This was supposed to be a hostile rematch between Anthony and Garnett, whose Jan. 7 altercation essentially cost the Knicks two games --- the one they lost that night while a flustered Anthony was going 6-for-26, as well as the subsequent loss they suffered at Indiana while Anthony was suspended for trying to confront Garnett postgame. The league responded by assigning Joey Crawford and Dick Bavetta to prevent further outbreaks, which led to an unexpected scene of Anthony helping Garnett (8 points and 12 rebounds) to his feet in the midst of play. "Whatever happened, happened, it's over with,'' said Anthony. "I was expecting it to be a hostile environment, but it was cool.''
Fans started out booing Anthony with each touch, but by the second half they had moved onto larger worries. Their Celtics are now 20-22 with a rough game Friday at Atlanta to be followed by the contentious return of the Heat and Ray Allen on Sunday. The way things are going, they may be in danger of missing the playoffs altogether if the No. 9 Sixers (17-25) can get any kind of production out of Andrew Bynum.
"They know with that kind of effort you're going to win most nights,'' said Rivers of this latest loss. The problem hasn't been so much on nationally-televised occasions like this against important opponents; the worst losses have come against Cleveland, Detroit and New Orleans, to quote from the last week alone.
The Celtics are not built to win now. They have too many players who are thinking instead of losing themselves in the intensity of the moment --- players brought in to help Garnett and Pierce, but to also learn from them in order to ease the transition two or three years from now. Rivers was coaching Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger on their way into timeouts, demonstrating what they ought to do with urgency and some frustration. After the game Kidd was talking about how his former teammate Jason Terry must still be adjusting to a new system that doesn't generate as many plays for him as he'd had in Dallas. "We have what we need in the locker room,'' said Rivers, taking undue blame in order to protect those who have not reacted well to the team-first demands of the Celtics. "I'm just not getting it out of them.''
While team president Danny Ainge undoubtedly is finding out whether he can make trades to advance their hopes for this or future seasons, Rivers is trying to force this team to complete its learning curve by April. They may not be able to win now, but what about three months from now?
They were outscored 16-0 in second chances and they were a preposterous 6-of-34 from outside the paint. They wasted a triple-double from Rajon Rondo (23 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds), who pulled them back within reach in the final two minutes, only to see them fumble a couple of passes for crucial turnovers that were the antithesis of the previous six years. Not even Pierce is certain of his role anymore: He made an exquisite series of moves to dodge two defenders before passing up a game-tying jumper from the elbow in order to feed Bradley for a corner (and errant) three. It was a beautiful play, but his coach disagreed with the timing. "He turned into Kevin Garnett for one play,'' said Rivers, who wanted to see Pierce drilling that shot.
He needed Pierce to cash in, while the Knicks were happy to see Anthony cash out when he passed out of the double team. It was a play that Anthony had been making more often earlier this season. "We've been short-handed a lot of times,'' said Kidd, "and 'Melo knows he has to score for us to have a chance of winning.''
The Knicks were in the midst of an extended 7-9 slump of their own, and Anthony was in a six-game shooting slump. But in the end he and his teammates combined on the kind of clinching play that the Celtics can't yet fathom. There are still months to go, but this was a revealing night for both teams.