CHICAGO — There are flashes of that Celtics team that once sliced through the Eastern Conference.
When they are clicking, the Celtics are an entertaining offensive team because they rely on ball movement and positioning rather than athleticism.
Three years ago, that play was sustained. The Celtics jumped on teams early or put them away in the fourth quarter. Now, the Celtics are as tough to watch as they are enjoyable. During Thursday’s loss to the Derrick Rose-less Bulls, the Celtics were outrebounded, 19-3, in the second quarter and scored 2 points over 7 minutes and 10 seconds spanning the second and third quarters.
Despite that, they held a 27th consecutive opponent to fewer than 100 points. While the defense has been there, the offense has struggled mightily. The Big Three have been wildly inconsistent.
First, Paul Pierce started slowly and Ray Allen averaged 20 points in his first six games. Now, Allen is mired in a shooting slump, and Pierce has struggled since passing Larry Bird on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. The Celtics, who took yesterday off, are 15-14.
The question is whether they are making progress, whether the Celtics are a fading champion headed for a fall or an aging power using the regular season to prepare for a long postseason run. The Celtics say it is the latter. They say progress is apparent, but those late-game stretches are costing them victories.
“It’s not like we’re just going out here [and stagnating],’’ Kevin Garnett said. “Every time we step on the floor, we’re trying to win a game and we’re trying to get better. Sometimes you get that without the outcome being what you want, but for the most part it’s a tough league. There’s no perfect game, no perfect formula to this. It’s only consistency, and we’re trying to get that.’’
But the Celtics are on the road, a tough place to find that. They are 4-6 away from home, with stops in Detroit, Dallas, Oklahoma City, and Cleveland remaining on this trip. Frustration has yet to set in, but coach Doc Rivers and the players want to start reaping the benefits of their work.
Unfortunately, their offensive weapons have not been productive at the same time. In the last three games, Rajon Rondo has been the catalyst with 84 points, but the Celtics are just 1-2.
While late defensive breakdowns have hurt, the Celtics have not been able to capitalize on the stops they do get. They were a combined 9 for 33 in the second and fourth quarters Thursday, as the Bulls pulled away before the half, and sealed the game with a 12-0 run.
“It’s been a frustrating year,’’ Rivers said. “We’ve got to keep fighting through this maze and it’s going to turn OK, and I really believe that. We’ve got some missing parts, too. We just have to keep hanging in there. I like our team. I like the way we’re starting to play, but we’re not winning games.’’
Eventually, because the Celtics are at the bottom end of the playoff structure, winning has to be paramount. The Celtics are playing well in spurts against good teams, but they had several chances to knock off a Bulls team without its best player, and refused to defend Luol Deng near the 3-point line and gave up a whopping 16 offensive rebounds.
The Celtics have had trouble rebounding in recent years but it’s becoming apparent they don’t have enough offensive firepower to offset that deficiency, as they did in 2008. Good offensive teams can outscore their mistakes, and the Celtics haven’t proven they can do that.
Yet the players are convinced better days are ahead. While the schedule doesn’t get easier, the team could get healthier. Garnett returned from a one-game absence (strained hip flexor) to record his eighth double-double of the season, and the lone key missing player is Brandon Bass (knee), who is expected back after the All-Star break.
There is more urgency with every loss. The Celtics said they realize they should have disposed of the Pistons in the first half Wednesday, and wasted a chance for a second straight victory against the Bulls, the top team in the East.
“We know we should have picked up some wins,’’ Rondo said. “We put a strain on our offense because we don’t get stops. It’s all the defensive end of the floor. We are either going to find [consistency] or find ourselves home early. We’ve got a lot of competitors in this room, so I know that’s not the case. We’ve got to stay positive, it’s a long season.’’