BOSTON — Kevin Garnett spoke in his usual monotone, steadily breaking down the reasons for the Celtics’ listless loss to the Nets on Wednesday. His reserved demeanor did not hide his disappointment, however, not so much with his teammates as with himself.
In his second game back after missing eight straight with soreness in his left foot, Garnett was clearly rusty. He missed six of his first seven shots before finding his way a bit in the second half, and during a break in the action in the third quarter there was a borderline shocking moment when Celtics coach Doc Rivers had to shout some defensive corrections at the veteran big man. Such mid-game instructions from Rivers are common, but not for Garnett, who is possibly one of the most technically flawless defenders in history.
As Garnett struggled, his teammates for the most part hung back. The Celtics went the entire first half without attempting a free throw, a startling statistic that Paul Pierce found unacceptable at halftime. But unlike Garnett, the rest of the Celtics did not have a nagging injury or a lack of rhythm as an excuse for their passivity.
“Whereas they were aggressive all night, we sort of settled for jump shots, and that was evidenced by the free throws,” Pierce said. “We should never take no free throws in a half of a game. That just shows a lack of aggression, a lack of trying to get to the basket, trying to get contact. There’s no excuse for that.”
The Nets eventually won 101-93 by shooting 25-for-28 from the free throw line, compared to 13-for-17 for the Celtics. The free throw disparity loomed large, since both teams shot just below 46 percent from the field (with the Celtics actually taking seven more shots) while their rebound (39-37 Nets) and assist (20-19 Celtics) totals ended up being fairly close. The teams also committed an identical 12 turnovers and 21 personal fouls each.
Yet Rivers, like Pierce, did not blame the foul shot disparity on the officials — far from it. Despite a chippy game that saw Garnett pick up a technical foul for throwing an elbow and nearly pick up a second for a similar transgression, nobody on the Celtics seemed to take any issue with the referees after the game.
“I thought Jeff [Green] got fouled on one drive,” Rivers said. “Other than that, honestly, I didn’t think there was a foul [in the first half] that they should have called. I thought the game was reffed great.”
The Celtics and Nets exchanged the lead nine times in the first half, but after a layup by Jordan Crawford with 5:17 left in the second quarter gave the Celtics a 37-35 lead, they never led again. Green and Jason Terry went 5-for-24 from the field to assure Garnett would not be alone in his poor shooting performance, but none of their misses were as awkward-looking as some of the missed layups Garnett tossed up. For his part, Garnett offered no excuses, only promises.
“I can be better in every part of my game,” Garnett said. “It’s not just one aspect. Obviously, my timing is off a little bit, and I’ll get that. I’m super anxious around the basket, hurrying shots. In the second half, I thought I was a lot better with my motion and consistency and being decisive in what I wanted to do. Sometimes I play against myself a little bit. That second half, I did a better job of just settling in and staying more aggressive.”
The Celtics need more from Garnett than his misleading line of 11 points and eight rebounds on Wednesday. He knows that. The question is whether the rest of the Celtics realize that they, too, must be more than set-shooters on offense and immobile pylons on defense, and that taking zero free throws for a whole 24 minutes will lead to more results like Wednesday’s in the playoffs.
“We’ve got to understand, we’ve got to raise our intensity at this point of the season,” Pierce said. “We’ve got to start prepping our mindset, our game plan and everything we try to do for the playoffs.”