There was a line of thinking that the lockout-shortened season was an act of basketball beneficence for the Celtics. The feeling was that a shorter season would save some wear and tear for a team with a lot of NBA mileage. It was a shortcut to another title run.
We now know that to be eminently flawed NBA logic. The lockout has hurt the Celtics as much as any team in the league.
Old legs need more lead time than young ones, which is why teams such as Miami, Oklahoma City, and last night’s opponent, the Chicago Bulls, have come out of the labor strife like Usain Bolt, while Celtics have come out of the lockout lethargic and lead-footed.
The expedited exhibition season hasn’t allowed them to catch their breath, figure out their bench, or establish their conditioning. The result is a 4-6 start and a losing streak that stretched to three games last night with an 88-79 loss to the Bulls at TD Garden.
The Celtics are clearly still working out the kinks, but last night’s loss provided the most encouraging sign yet that once the Rustoleum is applied and the lung capacity restored, the Celtics are going to be just fine.
They easily could have allowed themselves to be trampled by Derrick Rose and Bulls in a game in which Boston never led and fell behind by 20 (twice) in the third quarter. Instead, during a nearly nine-minute stretch between the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth they got locked in and played their most encouraging post-lockout basketball, whittling the Chicago advantage to a point.
They did it by displaying vintage suffocating Celtics defense and attacking the basket on offense with alacrity we haven’t often seen this season. After falling behind, 61-41, with 7:19 left in the third, eight of the Celtics’ next 11 baskets came from inside 15 feet, notable against a Chicago team that came in second in the NBA in points allowed.
The other three hoops were 3-pointers, two by Mickael Pietrus and one by Paul Pierce. Pietrus’s 3-pointer with 10:00 left in the game capped a 16-2 spurt that spanned the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth that brought the Celtics within 1, 67-66.
However, that was close as they got as Rose took over in the fourth, scoring 12 of his 25 points and the Celtics simply dug themselves too big a hole against old friend Tom Thibodeau’s team. That’s not the case for the season though.
“It’s been frustrating,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “But listen, I’d rather have it now. You’re going to go through adversity or stuff. I’d rather have it right now. Like I told our guys, I said, ‘If you get through this it’ll make you a [heck] of a basketball team.’ I always use the word ‘if’ because you have to fight through it. And I love what I saw in the second half. My question to them was, why did it take so long?’’
The answer is because Pierce and Kevin Garnett are still playing their way into shape, competing and conditioning at the same time.
Before the game Rivers said he could feel a big game coming from Pierce, who tied Kevin McHale for third on the Celtics all-time games played list with 971. It didn’t come last night, though.
Pierce was 3 of 12 from the field and finished with 13 points and a telltale one rebound in 36 minutes. He is now shooting 8 for 34 (23.5 percent) in his last three games. The cavalier captain shrugged off his struggles after the game.
“I think you guys are more discouraged than me,’’ he said with a hint of defiance.
Garnett wasn’t much better. He missed his first six shots before finally connecting on a 19-foot jumper with 7:39 left in the third quarter. He finished with 8 points and 7 rebounds in 34 minutes. Celtics try to keep pace with the Bulls, who entered the game with the best record in the Eastern Conference, was like watching a golf cart try to keep pace with a Ducati motorcycle.
Two totally different speeds.
The Celtics trailed, 52-33, at the half as point guard Rajon Rondo (14 points, 11 assists on the night) was the only one who could keep up with the younger, faster, more athletic Bulls. Boston was outrebounded, 27-14, before intermission, and outscored in second-chance points, 12-2. Chicago’s Luol Deng had a double-double by halftime.
Chicago played the type of defense that has been the Celtics’ calling card since the union of the Big Three, holding Boston to 13 of 39 from the field in the first half, while shooting 54 percent.
The Celtics played old then, but in the second half they played like the good old Celtics.
“I hate looking at 4-6, and I’m always concerned, but I like our team,’’ said Rivers. “I’m just going to say that I do. We’re going to be better, but you don’t want to get too far [behind]. The only thing I keep emphasizing to them is this is not like a regular season. This is a sprint, and the teams that have gotten off to great starts in my opinion have come into the season with an attack-the-season mentality, instead of getting into the season.’’
It doesn’t get any easier for the Green tonight as they play the back end of a back-to-back in Indianapolis against the Pacers and then come home and face the Oklahoma City Thunder. No word on whether there are plans to raise Kendrick Perkins’s jersey to the rafters before that one.
The Celtics are too accomplished a squad to take solace in moral victories, but when you’re not getting actual ones that’s all you have.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.