Last season wasn’t the same, at least according to Doc Rivers. The Celtics slumped before last year’s playoffs just as they are slumping now, but Rivers swears it was different.
“I shut them down,” he told ESPN Boston. “They were injured.”
But now he offers no such excuses.
As last season unraveled, Rivers maintained a marvelous sense of calmness. He was like a less lethal Jack Bauer—when all hell broke out around him, Bauer always knew exactly what to do. He knew when to fake dead, when to toss throwing knives at armed terrorists, and when to randomly bite through someone’s jugular vein. That was Doc. He didn’t use quite the same amount of violence, but as all hell broke out around him, as the 5-52 Nets strolled into Boston and walked away with a victory, Doc saw a vision and kept to it.
Celtic fans everywhere hit the panic button as Boston limped to a 27-27 finish to the season, but Rivers’ faith never waved. Once the Celtics got healthy, he understood, they’d cause hell for opponents. The plan was always to get ready for the playoffs, seeding be damned. If it looked bad to all the analysts and fans, Rivers didn’t care. Kevin Garnett was ole’ing Kris Humpries to the hoop, fluid was squirting out of Paul Pierce’s knee, and the Celtics had no chance if they entered the playoffs so wounded. So Rivers took his foot off the gas pedal, and told his team to idle into the playoffs. As the losses piled up—and they certainly piled up, and each one seemed more embarrassing than the last—Rivers kept a cheery outlook. Once the playoffs came, Doc always knew, his team would cause hell.
Which is why his reaction to yesterday’s loss—the mounting losses, really—was so alarming. This year isn’t the same as last year, not to Rivers. It’s worse, far worse even. Rivers never calls out his players to the press. He prefers to handle his business behind closed doors, to discuss his players’ faults in the privacy of their locker room, to chide and prod and discipline his players without the media knowing. Calling them out, based on everything we know about Rivers, must have been his last resort, his last option to reach a team that has dreadfully underperformed in recent weeks.
“The way we’re playing shocks me,” Rivers told reporters after the loss. “Our attitude shocks me. We’re just not ready to win any games right now the way we play, the way our approach is to basketball games. I told them that with about five minutes left. I said, ‘If we win great, you find your own way.’
“Right now, I just think we’ve become very, very selfish. Not as far as trying to get our own, but everything is about how we’re playing individually instead of how the team is playing. You can see it, a guy struggles, he pouts, he moans. Everything is ‘me, me, me’ on our team right now, feeling sorry for themselves instead of giving themselves to the team and playing.
“You can just see it manifest throughout the team. Until we can get through that we will continue to have results like we had tonight. Clearly we should have won the game. I thought the starting unit in particular came in casual in the fourth quarter, assuming they were going to win the game — no urgency. Then, all of the sudden, when the game got [to a 1-point contest], their butts got tight. When you [don’t have] that 11-point lead, the shots aren’t easy anymore. I always say it, ‘You screw around with the game, and the game will screw around with you.’ Either I’m doing a terrible job getting to them or right now they just aren’t there. I don’t know why. It’s my job to figure it out though.”
When Rivers called his Celtics soft the other night, he noted that it was the first time he’d done so since the Big Three Era began. Now he’s calling his team—which prides itself on being egoless, on making sacrifices to win, on making the extra pass and rotating to help teammates regardless of the circumstance—selfish. In the past week he has now used the two words he knows will hurt his team the most, two words the Celtics should cringe to hear associated with themselves, two desperate words he hopes will serve as sniffing salts for his struggling team.
Rivers isn’t calm, not like he was last year. His team is (at least relatively) healthy, and it’s their effort rather than any injuries which is causing the current skid. Things aren’t the same as they were last year, they’re worse. Even if they were the same, noted Rivers, “Last year, we lost Game 7 on the road.”
The Celtics should have learned from that lesson. They should know the formidable challenges the Bulls and Heat pose. They should play with urgency, not just because they desire home-court advantage but because they know first-hand how important it is. Yet they play without passion, losing to teams that shouldn’t be able to share the floor with them, allowing a depleted and untalented Bobcats team to steal a win the Celtics truly needed.
After the game, I couldn’t sleep. I picked up Bill Simmons’ “Now I Can Die In Peace,” and began to read. The passage, though it was about the Red Sox and though I don’t know whether to blame the Perkins trade for any of this recent mess, seemed perfect.
“Like so many other Red Sox fans,” wrote Simmons, “I never understood the wisdom of shaking up a championship team that succeeded because of personality and chemistry over anything else. Every post-2004 move was defensible on the surface (Pedro wanted too much money, Lowe needed a change of scenery, Roberts wanted a chance to play every day, Cabrera’s OBP wasn’t high enough, and so on) but the franchise failed to heed the biggest lesson from the season: namely, that some baseball teams succeed for reasons that transcend statistics. The 2004 Red Sox were definitely talented, but more importantly, they were unflappable. They enjoyed playing together. They rolled with the punches. They understood how to survive and prosper in a rabid baseball city like Boston. That’s why they won the World Series.”
Does the Perkins trade have anything to do with what’s happening today? Truthfully, I don’t know. I’d like to hope not, because Perk’s not coming back. I’d like to blame the struggles on the complacency of a veteran team just waiting on the playoffs. But really, I don’t know why the Celtics suddenly look so bad. I don’t know why Rondo looks disinterested, or why the Celtics don’t seem even slightly intrigued by the top seed. All I know is that the Celtics, for whatever reason, have gotten away from what made them a great team in the first place—the effort and unselfishness, the chemistry and the “Ubuntu,” the fire and the passion and the toughness—and Doc Rivers agrees they’re in a bad place.
Rivers is beginning to show desperation, grasping for straws, reaching deep within his bag of motivational tricks to try to reach his suddenly comatose team. All the losses resemble last year. But Doc swears things are worse.