Jeff Green was busy carrying the Celtics, lifting them into the lead after three quarters at Madison Square Garden, when Paul Pierce jumped in, grabbed the mic and performed the basketball-playing equivalent of a Kanye West impersonation.
“Imma let you finish, but …”
Only Pierce, like West, never did let Green finish. (Yes, in this scenario, Green is Taylor Swift. Nobody ever said this was a perfect analogy. Get over it.) With Green taking just one shot in the fourth quarter, Pierce and the rest of the Celtics seemingly forgot to go back to the guy who had gotten them that far. As the Celtics faded down the stretch, they went to Green only once in the key closing possessions, leading to an 85-78 loss in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference playoff series against the Knicks.
Yes, the Celtics’ bench was a no-show, getting outscored by its New York counterpart 33-4. The Celtics’ eight fourth-quarter turnovers — which matched the number of points they scored in that frame — helped the Knicks overcome an 8-for-21 brickfest. And Carmelo Anthony sure was a handful with his 36 points, eight of which came in the final eight minutes.
None of those factors might have come up, however, if the Celtics simply had made a concerted effort to go to the guy who had brought them that far.
“I don’t think we lost our composure,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers told reporters. “I just think we lost our way as far as playing.”
Green could have been more insistent about getting more than one iso opportunity against the mismatched Jason Kidd, but that was not entirely Green’s decision to make. The Celtics themselves love to put Pierce in their franchise’s pantheon, and part of being an all-time great is, as Pierce loves to say, “giving the game what it needs.”
What the game needed on Saturday was more of Green. Instead, Pierce called for the ball with the Celtics trailing by three points on two of the most crucial crunch-time possessions. Pierce missed a 3-pointer and then committed a turnover as he and the Celtics went to the same hero-ball approach that had gotten Anthony into so much trouble early. Even with Green’s disappearing act, the 26-year-old forward finished the game with 26 points on 8-for-15 shooting, with seven rebounds and three blocked shots. Pierce had 21 points on 6-for-15 shooting with seven assists and six turnovers. Green was playing better, and if the Celtics were going to dedicate some of those late clear-outs to anybody, Green deserved more than one shot.
At their best, the Celtics recognize those things. But Kevin Garnett was off the floor with five fouls and Boston was unraveling on both ends. The Celtics’ offensive spacing was thrown off as Garnett, the team’s best passer in the absence of Rajon Rondo, watched from the bench. So while Pierce got a little greedy and Jason Terry misfired, Green mostly stood in the left corner, waiting for the ball to find him.
Rivers thought the breakdown was technical, rather than emotional, but in the end it had the same result. Nobody would accuse Pierce, of all players, of losing his composure. But in the middle of a strong performance by Green, the Celtics’ captain misread the moment. Pierce tried to close out the win, as he has many times, when calling Green’s number a few more times might have been all that was needed.