BOSTON — As the ball bounced off Paul Pierce‘s knee and out of bounds, ending the Celtics’ chances of a last-second, game-tying shot, the Celtics could only take solace in the knowledge that, finally, a lack of intensity would not be their downfall.
This time, the Celtics played hard the whole way but failed to execute in the clutch. They turned the ball over on two crucial last-minute possessions, making it much easier for the New York Knicks to secure their 89-86 victory than the final score suggested. This constituted progress for a Boston team on a five-game losing streak.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who has made no secret of his disgust with his players’ inconsistency, was left to offer platitudes about moral victories.
“We lost the game and I thought both teams played hard,” Rivers said. “I don’t think either team played great, but if I saw that effort every night, I’d be happy.”
Four days after tearing into his team following a lethargic loss in Detroit, Rivers played good cop. He credited his team for playing hard and gave a what-are-you-gonna-do shrug to a number of missed open shots. He joked how he would have liked Pierce to take a jump shot from the free throw line to tie the game with two minutes left, rather than “turn into Kevin Garnett” and pass to Avery Bradley for a potential go-ahead 3-pointer.
Just as the Celtics apparently ignored Rivers’ harsh words on Sunday, they wanted no part of his peace offerings Thursday. Pierce practically begged once again for the team to compete night-in and night-out. Garnett scoffed at the idea that the Celtics should even need their coach to egg them on.
“The effort should be something he shouldn’t have to tell us,” Garnett said. “We’re professionals. Part of the job is coming in here and giving 100 percent, being a man, understanding your job and doing your job, bar none. So effort should never be a question. Execution, having a game plan and not running that game plan, is a whole other story.”
The Celtics had numerous opportunities to change the outcome of this game, but they found startling ways to let those opportunities escape them. They trailed by five points with 1:11 remaining when Jason Terry and Pierce could not execute a simple dribble-handoff and fumbled the ball out of bounds. Although the Celtics forced Carmelo Anthony, who scored a game-high 28 points, to shoot an airball on the ensuing possession and Rajon Rondo hit a jumper to pull within three points, the 23 seconds that came off the clock turned out to be fatal.
Because of that miscue, the Celtics had just seven seconds left after another defensive stop, and they needed to take a 3-pointer to tie. Recognizing this, the Knicks aggressively defended beyond the arc, going so far as to put 7-foot Tyson Chandler on Terry. Those extra 23 seconds would have prevented the Knicks from selling out against the three, and J.R. Smith probably would not have been able to apply the same tight coverage that forced Pierce to cough up the ball.
When the Celtics were at their lowest point — or what seemed like their lowest point at the time — earlier this season, Rivers mentioned seeking a “blueprint” victory. The Celtics needed at least one win, he said, where they played the right way in enough of the right areas for him to be able to point and say, this is how it is done.
Of course, it is possible to play the right way and not win. That might be the biggest loss from this game. If the Celtics toss aside the lessons from this game simply because they had fewer points on the scoreboard at the end, then this will end up being merely defeat No. 5 in a growing streak of futility. If they play with similar fervor Friday in Atlanta, they could come out with their first win in a week and have some needed confidence heading into Ray Allen‘s return to Boston on Sunday afternoon.
“It’s frustrating to lose when you give effort, because you’ve got to keep convincing your guys that if you play that way every night, you’re going to make more shots than that and you’re going to win a lot of games,” Rivers said. “Right now, they’re sitting there thinking, ‘We lost.’ They know it. They know with that effort, you’re going to win most nights.”
This was not one of those nights. For one game, at least, something different doomed the Celtics, so there’s that.