You could complain about the referees, the unjust Paul Pierce ejection, the 68-40 free-throw discrepancy and the missed calls. You can blame it on the Kendrick Perkins trade and its demolition of the team's chemistry, or Tom Thibodeau's departure from Doc Rivers' bench. If you've watched this Celtics team play for the past few years and have grown accustomed to championship runs, you have a long list of reasons to feel sour, but all are simply distractions to the cold, hard truth.
The Celtics, down 2-0 in a series for the first time of the Big Three era, are seeing their window as a championship contender close right before their eyes.
Actually, it's not closing so much as it is being slammed shut with some oomph by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The two have combined for 123 points in the first two games of the series, looking like they have finally figured out how to work together perfectly, how to take that "it" that's so important in the playoffs, harness it and create a lethal weapon. Through 96 minutes of a best-of-seven series, they've used it to deliver some haymakers.
That's both figurative and literal in this case. Ray Allen had to leave the game Tuesday night after absorbing a LeBron elbow to his chest, later feeling shortness of breath on the bench. Outside of that, though, it's been as much psychological as anything else. Allen, understandably, has struggled to stay between Wade and the basket. Kevin Garnett, the defensive anchor of the Celtics, got crossed up by Wade on Tuesday, sending the home crowd into a frenzy and leaving the 7-footer spinning in circles, desperately fouling and looking for answers.
And you can say the same for the rest of the team.
Rajon Rondo is looking more like the hardheaded, uncoachable rookie he was five years ago, as cameras caught him excusing himself from a team huddle and ignoring and escaping the grasp of captain Paul Pierce in the first half in Game 2. After averaging 19 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds in the C's first-round sweep of the Knicks, those numbers have dropped to 14 points, 9.5 assists and 6.5 rebounds — and even those numbers indicate he's having a bigger impact than he really is. Some of that can be attributed to his nagging back pain, but the attitude he showed during that timeout was downright inexcusable. There's also this photo, which just doesn't help.
Then there's Pierce. He was heating up in Game 1 before he excused himself from competition, and an Achilles injury limited him to 32 minutes and just 13 points in Game 2. The captain is one of the toughest, most durable players in the league, as he's only missed significant time once in his career. But he is 33, and when you're 33, injuries can creep up on you, no matter your medical history. Three days off may be just what the doctor ordered, but you need only look at Pierce's elder teammate, Shaquille O'Neal, to see how tricky such injuries can be. Pierce guarding LeBron at anything less than 100 percent is something that even Erik Spoelstra can exploit.
Put it all together, and you may be looking at the swan song for Pierce, Garnett and Allen. Of course, it's only two games, but this isn't anything new. Since Danny Ainge traded Perkins to Oklahoma City on Feb. 24, it's slowly crept into the minds of basketball fans in Boston. Sure, maybe the Celtics wouldn't be able to sign Perkins beyond this year, but didn't he give this team a better chance to win in 2011? At this point, you'd be hard-pressed to convince yourself that he didn't, and without him, the Celtics have never been the same.
Since that fateful day in February, we've all wondered if this would be it, if the brief run that saw the Celtics win a title and come painstakingly close to a second was at its very end. While two bad playoff games on the road don't yet give us complete confirmation, they do support those suspicions. A Celtics loss on the Garden floor in either Game 3 or Game 4, and it just might be time to postpone all that "Banner 18" talk for a few years.
The most loyal Celtics supporter will certainly deny that claim, but that's likely the same person who for months has said the Celtics will "turn it on" once the postseason comes around. That may have been true against an injured and thin Knicks team, but against two MVP candidates playing inspired basketball and looking hungry to unseat the reigning power in the East, it's proving to be a lot harder.
The old adage is that a series doesn't start until a road team wins, and by that theory, all the Heat have done is what they were supposed to. Yet, it's generally the team down 2-0 that starts using that adage, and it's generally the team that's down 2-0 that loses the series. The Celtics, over the past four seasons, have battled through adversity. They beat LeBron's Cavs last year when everyone said they were too old (sound familiar?). They endured a marathon seven-game series with the Bulls the year before, bouncing back from a triple-overtime loss in Game 6 to win Game 7 by 10 points. It was in that series, actually, that the C's suffered an overtime loss, a double-OT loss and that triple-OT loss, and they responded with wins after each and every one of them.
Yet, while that history of stepping up in the playoffs is there, the future may not be. In a way, it's not all that dissimilar to the Pistons earlier this decade. They won it all in '04, made it back to the Finals the next year and lost to the eventual-champion Heat in the Eastern Conference finals in '06. One year later, the veteran-laden Pistons couldn't fend off the younger, hungrier Celtics in the Conference finals, ceding power in the East to Boston.
That night in the spring of '08, when the Celtics won 89-81 in Detroit, Rasheed Wallace, a Piston during the glory years, didn't have much to say beyond this: "That's the end, man."
It's too early to put that stamp on this Celtics team, and there's no chance they'll go down without a fight. Still, while the end may not be here just yet, it's drawing nearer and nearer with each postseason defeat.
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