In the third quarter of yesterday’s matchup with the Boston Celtics, Lebron James drove to the hoop and was met by a Kevin Garnett hand to his eyeball.
Afterward, James said he could barely see for awhile following the collision.
“I was lucky to be able to finish the game,” he contended, perhaps with a little exaggeration. “It stayed blurry for about 15 minutes. It wore off close to the end of the fourth quarter.”
But it was the Celtics who played like they were in a haze.
From beginning to end, it was clear that the Celtics were a step slower and a few feet behind the NBA-leading Cleveland Cavaliers. Maybe they should have poked James’ eye a few more times… or at least his teammate Anderson Varejao’s.
Varejao ran circles around the Celtics big men, making Rasheed Wallace look more like a grandfather with cement in his shoes than a former NBA All-Star who just signed a three-year contract worth more than $15 million. (Three years? Oy vay.) Varejao tipped in buckets, slashed to the lane for easy scores, and generally provided the same type of energy for the Cavaliers that the Celtics have desperately missed all season.
“One guy completely dominated this game in Varejao,” Doc Rivers duly noted. “Second-[chance baskets], loose balls, activity [around the basket] and getting under our skin. He’s doing what he should do. That was very frustrating though. Overall, our defense was good, but we kept giving the ball back, even long rebounds — that was on our guards — but even then it was Varejao slapping the ball up in the air.”
“He came in the game and completely changed the game once again,” added Kendrick Perkins. “He did the same thing in Boston. When the game was like 16-16 [Sunday] — all of a sudden now the score was like 23- in two minutes. He just [came] off the bench and kept changing the game.”
Varejao flops his body, he flails his arms, and he annoys the hell out of opposing players, coaches and fans alike. But it’s very difficult to come away from watching the seven-foot Sideshow Bob lookalike play and not be impressed by his Energizer Bunny-like motor. He just keeps going… and going… and going.
With his energy and intelligent play, Varejao did change the game, just as Perkins asserted. But with the way the Celtics have been playing lately in big games, they would have been toast even if Mikki Moore had come off the Cavaliers bench. When great teams decide to put the clamps down and get to work, the Celtics put their tails in between their old, injured legs and run for cover.
To begin the fourth quarter, the Cavs opened an 8-point lead to 13 even with both King James and Prince Varejao on the sidelines. By the time Varejao was inserted back into the game, a couple minutes after James had re-entered, the lead was already 17, and the Celtics’ latest shot at redemption had been flushed down the toilet.
Another big game turned into nothing more than another big loss for the Celtics, whose fans are beginning to lose hope that this season will ever amount to anything greater than a brief trip to the playoffs. If the Celtics don’t want to be fishing well before June, they’ll have to step up a defense that is still effective but no longer anywhere near devastating.
That defense no longer intimidates foes, and can’t quite come up with big stops when the Celtics need them. Former Celtic Leon Powe, a beloved fan favorite during his time in Beantown, noticed the difference between the past and the present.
“Looking at the defense from the championship year, when we won it, it doesn’t look the same,” Powe said, stating the obvious. “It looks like the rotation is slower and they ain’t getting to the shooters and closing out like they did before. I don’t know if it’s effort or maybe they’re a little older.
“But they’ve been old.”
They have, Leon. But the thing about getting old is you keep getting older.
Whatever the reason — effort, age, or whatever else — it’s become painfully obvious that the Celtics aren’t playing anything even remotely resembling championship basketball. As the losses pile up and the fans grow weary of a disturbing pattern of inconsistent play, even the brash, cocky Celtics have started to lose confidence.
Kendrick Perkins, who before the game stated that Cleveland hadn’t done anything Boston hadn’t, changed his tune after the game. He admitted his teammates aren’t as confident in themselves as Coach Doc Rivers is.
“I think Doc got more confidence in us than we got in ourselves,” he told the Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn.
Rivers then proved Perkins’ point. While his team hung its heads, likely embarrassed and humiliated by another beatdown suffered at the hands of an Eastern Conference rival, Rivers kept his mask of confidence.
“I think we’re close,” Rivers said. “I think we’re really close. But we can say that all we want. You’ve got to prove it at some point. Listen, we had a chance to win this game, but we didn’t. It was frustrating for me, because you can see in a lot of ways how close we are to breaking out and to being really good.”
While Rivers tries to coax his team out of its three-month slumber with continued waves of false confidence (Close to the Cavs? Yes, they are… almost as close as Tony Allen is to being a Hall of Famer.), other Celtics and former Celtics have a message that’s more realistic.
Rajon Rondo was one Celtic who realized the Grand Canyon-wide gap between the two teams.
“Right now, we’re just not getting the job done,” he explained. “I’m not saying [we can't beat the Cavs]. It’s just, right now, it’s a big difference. They’re on the same page.”
Asked whether the Celtics were on the same page, Rondo continued, “At times. I think that’s where we break down, defensively and offensively. You know, we’re not on the same page. Defensive rotations are off.”
Leon Powe doesn’t play for the Celtics anymore, but he remembers as well as anybody what the C’s glory days were like. And he knows they’re no longer here.
“I wouldn’t say [their window] is closed,” Powe said, perhaps being generous to his former teammates.
“But looking at the defense from the championship year, they don’t look the same; let’s put it like that.”