CLEVELAND — Doc Rivers spent nearly 20 minutes addressing the Celtics after Sunday night’s lackluster 103-88 loss to a Pistons team that looked uninterested in its game three days earlier against the Knicks in London.
Yet the host Pistons revisited their Bad Boys days, beating up, outhustling, and playing with more passion than the Celtics, who have lost three straight after a six-game winning streak. When Rivers kept his team sequestered for so long in the locker room at the Palace of Auburn Hills, it was obvious something was brewing.
Rivers may not have warned his players that if they didn’t improve they could be shipped to Siberia (or Sacramento, whichever is worse), but it took him just 100 seconds to deliver that message to the media.
While New England was mourning the Patriots’ loss, the Celtics’ usually lighthearted and affable coach was throwing down the gauntlet to a team that desperately needs a wake-up call.
“I gotta either find the right combination, the right guys, or we’re going to get some guys out of here,” Rivers said. “It’s the bottom line, because this group right now, they’re not playing right and it’s in them to play right but right now they haven’t been because I’m not getting to them or they’re not getting to each other. Either we gotta do that or we gotta make changes. I’m saying if we don’t get it right we may [make changes]. The six-game winning streak was great. Three of those games we played tremendous basketball. The other three we won the game.”
Rivers added, “That’s it for me, thanks,” and then he was done. But the coach had said enough. If this lackadaisical and dispassionate group didn’t know beforehand, it is now on alert starting with Tuesday’s matchup with the Cavaliers.
The Celtics are a team — and that’s not counting Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett — that believes because they are Celtics, because Rivers is the coach, and because the organization has been successful the past six years, they will snap out of their stupor despite giving the same effort they have been for the first 40 games.
The results from those 40 games are in and the Celtics are an average team at best, primed for an elimination by the Heat in the first round of the playoffs. They don’t play well at home. They don’t play well on the road. They don’t consistently defend. They don’t consistently rebound. And they don’t consistently score.
They miss Ray Allen. And not just because he was a long-range scorer and could get to the free throw line. He also brought professionalism and seriousness to the table. The locker room has become a playhouse after games, with players brushing off difficult losses like Boston snowflakes.
It’s not that they don’t want to win. It’s that some don’t know how, while others expect the veterans to get the team’s issues to dissipate. The question Rivers is pondering is whether the Celtics have the right blend of veterans.
The Celtics added Courtney Lee and Jason Terry and retained Jeff Green to supplement their core three because, quite honestly, Pierce and Garnett can’t produce as they once did and shouldn’t be expected to at ages 35 and 36, respectively. So on nights when Pierce is erratic from the field or doesn’t have the lift on his jumper, Lee, Green, and Terry are expected to pick up the slack.
But that occurs far less often than expected. And what’s more, that trio has not provided the veteran leadership that is expected. While Pierce, Garnett, and Rondo are Celtics, their teammates are playing for the Celtics. There’s a big difference. With Pierce and Garnett aging, Allen gone, and the Celtics with little to show from recent drafts beyond Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger, so much depended on the production of that bench trio. Meanwhile, Brandon Bass, after signing a three-year deal and receiving security for the first time in his well-traveled career, has regressed, unable to hit that midrange jumper that made him such an attractive addition a year ago. In the past 20 games, Bass has scored in double figures three times.
“We’re not where we want to be right now but this is what we have,” a dejected Rondo said. “This is the players we’re playing with. I like this team. I’m not down, don’t like to lose, obviously frustrated. I like our team. On the court, we’ve got to do a better job. It’s on the starters. It’s on me. I gotta do a better job.”
Rondo is attempting to become a leader, but his teammates have to view him as one. They can’t view him as just a buddy. He has been handled the mantle and he absolutely has to begin holding his teammates more accountable and demand that they take their jobs more seriously. He has rid the locker room of the “I’m not worried, we have another game tomorrow” attitude.
If things don’t come together quickly, tomorrow will be spent in Siberia or Sacramento by some. And shaking things up is perhaps exactly what this organization needs, because after 40 games, this team has shown nothing but the ability to be mediocre — and that’s not the Celtic way.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.