These are tough times for the Celtics.
Things are so bad that after Game 1 of their series with the Knicks (a seven-point loss), Doc Rivers responded by declaring the need for more Jordan Crawford. So bad that after Game 2 (a 16-point loss), Doc felt the need to point out that his captain is not a formerly paralyzed/currently deceased actor. So bad that we’re now waist deep into the playoff waters, and the Celtics rotation consists of an injured Kevin Garnett, an aching Paul Pierce, an inconsistent Jeff Green and a shadow of Jason Terry, plus Avery Bradley, Brandon Bass and Jordan Crawford.
Tough times, indeed.
And as a result, if the Celtics lose Friday night at the Garden, their season is over. Not officially, buuuuut yeah, officially. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in the NBA playoffs and you can’t imagine the first victim will be a squad that’s currently as hot as the Knicks. (If not for Miami screwing up everyone’s sense of reality with wins in 40 of their last 42 games, New York -- 18-2 in its last 20 -- would be the talk of the NBA world.)
But if Boston does win, then . . . well, it'll still be an incredibly tough road, but I guarantee the bandwagon will be loaded on Sunday. By the time the Celtics take the court for Game 4, we’ll have convinced ourselves that anything is possible once again.
So what will it take to win this game and extend the series?
In my opinion, they need to bring it back to February. Like I wrote on Wednesday, at this point, I think the only way for the Celtics to make it out of this series is to somehow re-capture the magic they fostered in the immediate aftermath of Rondo’s injury: That seven-game win streak.
Seriously, if everyone (including Doc) is so convinced that the absence of Rondo is why the Celtics are suddenly losing, then why not re-visit the only stretch of playoff-caliber success that they’ve experienced in this post-Rondo world? Why not return to that old lineup and the only rotation that ever had this team feeling a sense of chemistry and identity?
Bradley and Courtney Lee — the Pitbulls — as your starting guards, creating havoc on the perimeter, making the opposition REALLY work to get into their half-court set, and creating offense out of their defense (so that the C’s aren’t forced to rely as much on their own half-court set). Pierce as your primary scorer and clear leader on the first unit, Bass doing what he does (in this case, hounding Carmelo Anthony) and Garnett, making the best of what he has left in that ailing left foot.
Then you have Jeff Green and Jason Terry coming off the bench. The two of them embraced that role together earlier in the year, and could help combat what the Knicks have in JR Smith. In that seven-game streak, you could see Jet’s swagger starting to rub off on Green. Jeff was always more comfortable playing alongside Terry than he was Pierce. And then, if the matchup dictates it, you can throw Jordan Crawford out there.
And that’s it. That’s the rotation. Honestly, what do they have to lose? More to the point, what have they gained by promoting Green into the starting lineup?
Listen, I was on board with the decision to start Green a few weeks back. I thought he earned it. He did earn it. But it’s not working. And I’m not blaming Jeff for that; there’s just something about having him start with Pierce and KG that doesn’t click. For those three and the entire team around them. The Celtics just look lost. Like no one is exactly sure what their role is. This team looks as disjointed as it was those first few months with Rondo. And right now, Rivers has a choice:
He can continue to roll the dice and hope that this new rotation clicks before it’s too late (keeping in mind how gross it has looked these last two games), or he can take a step back and say: “Hey, you know what? What we had before wasn’t so bad. Maybe that rotation that saved our season back in February can save it one more time in April.”
I’ll take Door No. 2. Give me what’s already worked, as opposed to some playoff pipe dream. But obviously, that’s just my opinion. And unfortunately, I don’t think that Doc shares it. I think he’s made his bed with Green in the starting lineup and has tucked the sheets in unbelievably tight. Sink or swim, these are most likely the Celtics. More Jordan Crawford. No Courtney Lee. Starring Paul Pierce as not Christopher Reeve and Kevin Garnett suffering through painful bone spurs.
We all want to be optimistic heading into Game 3, but when you look at this team, assuming they’ll trot out the same rotation as they have these last two games, and considering that the Knicks are the hottest non-alien basketball team on the planet, it’s hard. There’s no question that Boston can compete. No one will be surprised if every single game that’s left in this series is played closely and/or comes down to the wire. But the Celtics are lacking the chemistry, identity, and more importantly, the edge that’s necessary to put them over the top. When it comes to winning time, something’s missing. And whatever it is, the Knicks have it in spades.
At this point, I think the only other hope the Celtics have of rediscovering themselves will come in the form of some home cooking. They return to the Garden for the first time since April 10; in other words, for the first time since this city was changed forever. There’s no doubt that emotions will be high, the jungle will be rocking and we’ve seen the Celtics respond in that atmosphere so many times before.
But there’s a difference between the broader term “Celtics” and the specific version of the team that we’ve watched this passed month -- specifically these last two games. It feels like it will take a lot more than inspiration to put these guys over the top.
These are tough times for the Celtics.