When I was only ten years old, the Boston Celtics’ Rick Pitino Era began.
You can insult Pitino’s tenure all you want, and I’ve probably echoed every insult you could voice — drafting Ron Mercer ahead of Tracy McGrady was not superbly intelligent, nor was signing 295 other former Kentucky players, nor was selecting Jerome Moiso, nor was trading away Chauncey Billups before he could even settle into his Boston apartment, nor was lamenting “Larry Bird’s not walking through that door,” nor was signing Travis Knight to a $3 billion contract. But on the first night of the Pitino Era, the Boston fans could not have been happier with their new coach. It was Halloween of 1997 (I trick-or-treated as a Gameboy console, for anybody wondering, and I was slightly too young to egg unsuspecting victims), and the Celtics opened a new season by blowing out Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, 92-85.
We thoroughly believed, for one night, that the Celtics were destined for a top seed and playoff success. They’d just beaten Michael Jordan, for chrissakes. That Bulls team had gone 69-13 the season before and won a championship. By the transitive property of the NBA, the Celtics wrapped up the ’97-’98 championship on opening night. But, alas, those were all pipe dreams. The Celtics could not bring the same effort every night; as they followed the Bulls win by losing their next five games, we realized that starting Walter McCarty and Andrew DeClerq was not the best recipe for success.
“The hardest thing in this league is consistency,” Rajon Rondo told the Boston Herald after last night’s loss, and, if you couldn’t tell, I’ve now transitioned to the present. These new-look Celtics have shown some flashes of brilliance. There was the dominant win against Phoenix, when three Celtics registered double-doubles and the 115-103 final did not do the bloodbath proper justice. There was the defense against Milwaukee, which resulted in the fewest points allowed in Celtics history. There was the bench’s play against Indiana, when we watched Jeff Green team with both Glen Davis and Delonte West for the first time — the world seemed right. But two nights after that win was last night’s debacle, which prompted a question about the last time Boston felt like a cohesive unit.
“Last year, around this time,” responded Rondo. And while that answer doesn’t seem right — at this time last year, the Celtics were limping into the playoffs, whereas the Celtics began this season with a seemingly wondrous chemistry on both ends of the floor — it was telling. It’s been a long time since this team felt right, at least with any consistency. Sure, the Celtics won five straight games immediately after adding Krstic and Green. But the wins were fools gold, and it seemed that way even at the time — the Celtics were not winning games as much as they were surviving them. “We’ve had games where we looked great, but it’s been a roller coaster,” said Rondo. And resembling Coney Island’s “Cyclone” is not the way to fend off Chicago for the Eastern Conference’s top seed.
But what has led to this damning lack of consistency? Chemistry? The Celtics added five new players at (or days after) the trade deadline. Injuries? Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal still sit. Rondo disputes that he’s hurt, but he’s totaled eight points in his last four games, while shooting 13.8% (4-29) and reaching double-figure assists exactly zero times. Offense? The Celtics have scored less than 90 points in four of their past five games, and less than 80 points twice… against the Nets and Rockets! Defense? Boston’s defensive numbers have not looked bad, but opponents sure do seem to get an alarming number of uncontested layups, don’t they?
“This component, you’re dealing with a lot of different variables,” Kevin Garnett told CSNNE. “Mixing in, putting things together … we’re not going to make any excuses. We gotta figure it out, and try to put it together as soon as possible and get back to winning.”
Winning. Duh. When the Celtics are playing consistently, there’s something musical about the way they play. Rondo drives into the lane, and he doesn’t have to look to see Ray Allen flickering open on the perimeter. Kevin Garnett rolls to the hoop, and an alley-oop waits for him before he even gets there. Paul Pierce gets a mismatch, and the other Celtics know enough to leave him alone. You could credit chemistry for the C’s innate ability to play selflessly and play together, but (when going well, at least) they have played like that since Day One. Things just haven’t gone well as frequently, lately.
But that will change soon, right?