Every win counts, at this stage of the regular season. Sadly, the Boston Celtics don’t quite seem to realize that yet. Tonight’s loss, against the New Jersey Nets, makes three Celtics losses in their last four games. The Chicago Bulls, idle tonight, have now tied Boston in the Eastern Conference standings.
I could discuss how Deron Williams hit a three-pointer to ice the game, or how Brook Lopez hit a tough jump hook in the waning minutes, or how Rajon Rondo decided a pull-up 20-footer was the shot Boston wanted with 1:30 left in the game, down by only two points. But to dwell on the late occurrences would gloss over when Boston really lost the game, in the second and third quarters.
After one period, the C’s had New Jersey on the ropes. The Nets had scored 14 points in the opening frame, meaning the Celtics had allowed only 70 points in their last five quarters combined. But that was when Boston stopped making things easy. Missed rotations characterized the defense, as Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez freed themselves for layup after layup. Missed shots characterized the offense, as the Celtics shot only 41.2%. But to lose, to the New Jersey Nets, while allowing only 39.7% shooting? The Celtics displayed an utter lack of purpose, a willingness to allow the game to pass through their fingers like a pass through Kwame Brown’s hands (if you can call them that). Missing jumpers sucks. But settling for jumpers was evidence of Boston’s lacking energy. The game was the second night of a back-to-back, and the Celtics have struggled mightily on such nights. But it’s time to kick that habit, with the top seed in sight and the season drawing to a close.
Rondo began the game with a drive and dish to Kevin Garnett, who hit a jumper. Number Nine then stole the ensuing inbounds pass, resulting in another assist to Garnett. If you’re scoring at home, that was two assists within the opening thirty seconds, and an exhale from me. “Rondo’s back,” I thought with a smile on my face. Unfortunately, he was mostly a non-factor for the remaining 23 and a half minutes of the first half, and the “What the hell is wrong with Rondo?” school of thought will undoubtedly gain steam. If I thought anything would bring Rondo out of his brief hibernation, a matchup with Deron Williams would be near the top of the list. Instead, no.
If there was one thing that set apart Rondo’s start to the season from the rest of his career (besides all those 20-assist games), it was his consistency. Finally, he had learned to bring his ‘A’ game on every night, even when the opponent was not top-notch. Finally, he had begun to display his greatness on a nightly basis. Finally, game-long duds were erased from his repertoire, and in its place was a star who dominated (or at least controlled) every game. Not anymore. Rondo now looks either A) banged-up, B) entirely disinterested, or C) slightly buzzed on alcohol or marijuana, and has looked that way for three straight games, and off-and-on for quite a bit longer than that. I’ll confidently rule out option C, but I’d prefer the Rondo who was fully engaged for each of Boston’s first 30 or 40 games. Worse still, Rondo injured himself during the third quarter and had to ask out of the game. He was seen icing his ankle after the game, and “looked in pain.”
Backing up Rondo, Carlos Arroyo continued to play a good quarterback. He did not have perfect stats, and has not had a truly impressive statistical output since joining the Celtics. But he plays mostly mistake-free basketball, and gets teammates in the right place. Joining Arroyo on the “I liked what he did tonight, even if his box score line won’t make your eyes pop out” was Troy Murphy. The Irishman didn’t score, nor did he take a shot. But he fought for offensive rebounds, and his legs no longer look like anvils (though they don’t look super-swift, still). Murphy grabbed three offensive boards, and five overall, in only nine minutes and change. For a team that has been starved for offensive rebounds for years, the Celtics could use those types of contributions.
Not so stellar was Nenad Krstic. I don’t want to pile on Krstic, because he’s been better than expected since joining the Celtics. After two straight double-doubles, he was due for an off night. But he’s not due for such late defensive rotations, which are clearly habitual for the Serb. Many times, Krstic was a step or two late on the rotation. Many times, Humphries or Lopez made him pay for his lack of punctuality. I can handle the way Krstic has played since joining the Celtics. He’s been phenomenal, mostly. But the Celtics would benefit if he learned to make more crisp rotations, on a more consistent basis.
The Celtics have already benefitted from Glen Davis’ return, and it’s nice to have him back. At least, it’s nice to have the “Glen Davis who affects play on both ends, because of his hustle” back. Since many of Boston’s players decided to take a night off, Davis’ energy proved ever more visible.
Rondo drew a -13 plus/minus. Paul Pierce could not buy a bucket, though he did add another reminder that, yes, his legs are quite a bit more bouncy than before. Jeff Green continued to easily find shots, but perhaps creating shot attempts come too easy for him. Too often, he settled for tough jumpers, when his physical skills should allow him to find layups. At least Ray Allen hit some difficult shots, Kevin Garnett played rather well on both ends, and Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar both sucked.
“We’re just not playing well right now, number one,” said Doc Rivers. “And you go through that. Sometimes you have to wait for your team. Now, I’m kind of waiting for them to kick back into gear.”
Me too, Doc. Me too. If they don’t, the number one seed may soon fall out of their grasp.