But that’s what they’ve looked like throughout this never-ending series with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Game 7 is Saturday at the TD Garden, another chance for the C’s to make the statement, to show their veteran will and power, to stop the upstart Sixers one more time. But doesn’t it feel like, even if they get this one, that Game 8 and 10 and 12 would go to the Sixers — even as the Celtics advanced? This won’t feel like a series that Boston ever won, not when the devastating, surging wins were quickly canceled out by the plucky, fast-breaking Sixers taking the next one.
Say all you want about Boston being championship-caliber. They may be, but they haven’t been so far this postseason.
The question is whether that matters. So, the Celtics have trouble getting it going — both in opening quarters and entire games. Does that disqualify them from competing for a championship? They can turn it on, right?
Let’s eliminate past seasons and just look at this year’s playoffs for answers. The Lakers were as uneven as the Celtics at many points this year, but Kobe Bryant rested up to be in playoff form. After a slow start, the Nuggets stretched the Lakers to seven games before the Lakers rediscovered the golden dagger that comes standard with their yellow jerseys. Knocking off Denver, the Lakers declared themselves ready for contention.
Then came Oklahoma City. The Thunder is an immensely talented team, to be sure, and one full of stars not only fashioning great individual performances but also hungry for title glory. But the wilting that was Los Angeles’ 4-1 fold can’t just be pinned on the Thunder. The Lakers never had it in that series, sans Bryant, who looked ready both to dominate on the court and to eat his teammates alive. He called his fellow players out once, twice, another. He dumped in 42 points. He worked his tail off. But a sauntering Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum never looked like they came to conquer.
The Lakers needed to start working during the Nuggets series, not to mention the regular season, if they expected their star players to amount to more than a pretty-looking lineup. But they were hanging on game to game, and at some point it set in with the Lakers core the way it sets in with the middle-aged man who eventually gets tired of cleaning his yard every Saturday. Do I have to? It won’t look that much worse if I don’t. This couch is so comfortable. I have more free time if I don’t. Even a nagging wife named Kobe couldn’t inspire the middle-aged man to get off his rear end and do what he should be doing. The drive just wasn’t there.
Take that in comparison to another Western Conference team that chugged into the postseason with 18 wins in a row. Say what you will about the talent level and options available to the San Antonio Spurs, but that team looks like it came prepared for playoff ball. Gregg Popovich wrote the book on how to run a veteran team during a game-packed season this year, resting players without destroying their contributions.
The best thing the Spurs did, of course, was clean out their first- and second-round matchups with two straight sweeps. It takes a talented team to do that, sure, but it also takes a focused team. Those guys weren’t messing around. They came out strong, held leads, sustained solid play, and even chipped back from big deficits when things got out of control. They won games without shades of doubt — and while some of those wins could have gone the other way, they never let that enter their mentality and approach.
That brings the discussion back to the Celtics. Consistency is not a word that can be used with this team. Instead of an even grind, they’ve been offering “statement wins” that show opponents who’s boss only to roll over the next time out. They’ve offered up putrid quarters or just disappeared at the end of games, where they give young opponents a case study on how to take advantage of teams that can’t close it out. They won it all just a few years ago, but lessons from the title season seem far from this team’s mind. Even the Big 4 are going through stretches where they don’t look like they’re trusting each other and playing together.
The C’s went into Wednesday night’s game a day ahead in a race with the mighty (and recently awakened) Miami Heat for resting time before the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics — who already had two “shoulda won”s in their pocket against the same Sixers — came out flat and ugly. Now, they’re down to one game to define the season. They’re the Celtics, and they’ll come fired up, but how does it get to this? A one-game situation is terrifying — so much could go wrong. The likelihood of disaster is only getting higher and higher as Boston exhibits how to make so much go bad with a team that’s so talented and looked so ready. The 76ers have nothing to lose in this one — they’re eons past what was expected of them. How did this happen?
Boston may take Game 7, but the team has already lost out on extra rest (unlike San Antonio), extra motivation (like Los Angeles) and extra wake-up calls (unlike the no-longer-messing-around Heat). A Game 7 win is no longer reassuring when it looks like other contenders have already done what it takes to win a championship — in the early rounds.
The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan wrote Thursday that the C’s must close it out Saturday “if they wish to avoid feeling miserable for the rest of their lives over a colossal lost opportunity to get to NBA Finals.” That’s a thought that sticks. This could be the end for three veteran Boston players. How can Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen not be hungry? How can they not impose their will for 48 minutes? Are the “statements” they’ve made so far as good as it’s going to get?
Here’s hoping the men in green are looking into the future, contemplating years with their feet up as they rest in their rocking chairs, thinking about a stray Jrue Holiday 3-pointer or a missed shot against a wobbly Elton Brand. The 76ers shouldn’t be a team in waiting, like the Thunder or maybe the Pacers. They are not better than the Celtics.
Now would be a lovely time to light the fire that shows that these guys aren’t happy — really aren’t happy — with one banner.
The couch is comfy, fellas, but you can’t continue in the playoffs like this. You don’t “win some and lose some.” Get up and cut the hedges — starting now.
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