There were no whispers or stutters. Doc Rivers did not slur the “S” in the word “soft” when he called out the Celtics after a pathetic 95-83 loss to the Brooklyn Nets Wednesday night. It was something he has been thinking for weeks, a weapon that he was waiting to unleash at the perfect moment.
No grown man wants to be called “soft.” In a way, it’s like telling your wife that she has gained weight — there is no taking those words back, regardless of how many years pass. The word “soft” will be deeply embedded in the memory of the Boston players — players who pride themselves on their toughness, who strut on the court wearing Celtic green knowing (or at least they used to) that the opposing team was intimidated.
The Nets proved Wednesday that they are hardly daunted by the Celtics, that they have the kind of veterans and brashness to turn the game into a rout. The Celtics are often erratic at home, strangely unable to make TD Garden a difficult place to play for opponents.
Over the past several seasons, the Celtics have lost their edge at home. An agent once mentioned to me that opposing teams no longer view “at Boston” on the schedule as an automatic loss, especially when the Celtics 1. notoriously start slow and 2. lack an enforcer.
While his eagerness to defend a teammate is commendable, Rajon Rondo absolutely, positively, and certainly cannot be your enforcer. And because he took it upon himself to defend Kevin Garnett by taking on a player 8 inches taller and 75 pounds heavier, he will serve a two-game suspension and do nothing to dispel the assertion that the Celtics are soft.
When Andray Blatche, much-maligned for his lack of passion and intensity, is allowed to rule the paint, that’s soft. And Rondo, despite his talent and fearlessness, can’t be considered your toughest player. He’s a guard. Toughness has to come from establishing an interior defensive presence, blocking out on rebounds, giving hard fouls, and playing physical but not dirty.
“Well, we don’t work on toughness, we work on smartness,” Rivers said. “We work on being prepared, playing with the force.
“Listen, the toughness thing, all that stuff, you know how I feel about it — that’s so overblown. You can’t be tough anyway. I don’t know who is tough anymore.
“Having said that, we have to be better. I have to prepare them better. They have to come ready. They have to come with the right intentions, the right focus. So, there’s a lot of things we can do to improve our team. And it’s a long season to do it, but you can’t wait for it. You’ve got to do it now.”
Rivers should have nothing to do with the players erasing the “soft” perception. As he pointed out Wednesday night, he can’t be dressed in a tailored suit with Celtics clover cufflinks and tell the players to be more intense and passionate. He can’t show old game tapes from the 1980s as examples of how to be physical.
It has to come from within, and players such as Rondo, Garnett, and Paul Pierce should be embarrassed to be associated with anything soft. But those three aren’t the ones Rivers is worried about. The Celtics need players such as Courtney Lee and Jeff Green to break out of their unassuming personalities and understand the urgency of the situation.
Just as there is a difference between a Jaguar and a Patriot or a Diamondback and a Red Sox, there is a difference between a Grizzly and a Celtic.
Rivers had to upgrade his coaching game after being fired in Orlando, while Garnett, Pierce, and Rondo each had to play at a higher level once the Big Three came together in 2007.
But the rest of the roster has been lagging, and Rivers was speaking directly about it being wildly inconsistent.
“I keep hearing we could [be consistent] from all of you guys. But we haven’t,” Rivers said. “But I do believe we can. I’ve seen it.
“I saw it in the Oklahoma game. The Brooklyn exhibition game, we showed up. It was like the opposite. We showed up to prove a point. It’s in us.
“But what I don’t know about our team is, are we one of those teams that can’t be consistent enough to do it? If we are one of those teams, then we do have to make changes, because we have to be consistent.”
Rivers freely acknowledges he hasn’t figured out this team, and that’s not necessarily a bad sign, but it needs to be addressed. During the early years of the Big Three, he didn’t have to use the media to challenge his players, but Wednesday night he pulled out that silver bullet.
This is not unprecedented in sports. New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin called his defense the “S-word” after it was pushed around the field four weeks ago by the Pittsburgh Steelers. After another rough outing against the Cincinnati Bengals and a bye week, the Giants returned to whip the streaking Green Bay Packers.
The Celtic players shouldn’t complain about Rivers or blame the officials, back-to-back games, injuries, the schedule, or anything else among the plethora of tired excuses.
The Celtics have been called out by their coach, the one who has protected them fiercely over the past two months.
Remember when the Celtics recorded one offensive rebound against the Spurs nine days ago and Rivers remarked that rebounding wasn’t all that critical?
Well, this is him Thursday:
“I mean, we’re getting mauled on the rebounds every night, so if I’m another coach, I have to tell my team, ‘Guys, they’re not very physical. They’re not blocking out. They’re not putting bodies on anybody. You can attack this team.’ And until we stop the attack, then they’re going to keep doing it.”
So Rivers, essentially, has finally stopped protecting his players. They are being left to fend for themselves, and the ones who falter may be subject to removal or demotion.
It’s a calculated move, one that had to be made before the Celtics sink further.
Now we’ll see how they respond to his tactic.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe