They had staved it off, delaying the repercussions game by game even as the injuries continued to build one by one, patiently wiping out the Celtics’ roster like a villain who is in no rush.
It could never last. It was unreasonable to think it ever would. Boston had won on emotion that emerged in honor of fallen comrades and with unexpected contributions from those thrust into different roles, but inevitably, the toll of so many missing bodies would be too high to endure.
Tuesday night at TD Garden, the Celtics faced the Knicks without Kevin Garnett and Courtney Lee. And though the Celtics have masked the absence of key players before, winning without Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger and Leandro Barbosa and even Garnett, they could not do so against New York, which prevailed soundly, 100-85.
For the first time since Rondo went down with a season-ending knee injury in January, it seemed as though the Celtics had finally – if not reluctantly — succumbed to the reality of their limited roster. A 15-point home loss to a shorthanded team will do that.
“It’s been like that for us all season long, it just seems like it gets worse and worse,” captain Paul Pierce said of the injuries. “We can’t feel sorry for ourselves.”
The Celtics have lost five consecutive games, and as Garnett is expected to miss up to two weeks with inflammation in his left ankle, a rather gloomy question looms:
Is this what the Celtics can expect while their defensive anchor is out?
“No,” a defiant coach Doc Rivers said. “Guys, I think you’ve been around me long enough. Kevin’s not playing. I don’t worry about it. I really don’t.
“Somebody else has to play better. A lot of guys. It’s not going to be one guy. But overall, we were pretty bad [Tuesday]. Kevin had nothing to do with that.”
Garnett missed his second consecutive game and his presence in the paint was sorely missed.
The Knicks, who were playing without center Tyson Chandler (neck) and forward Amar’e Stoudemire (knee), crushed the Celtics around the basket, scoring 50 points in that area.
They also hammered Boston on second-chance points, holding a devastating 29-6 advantage behind 15 offensive rebounds, 10 of which were collected by the duo of J.R. Smith (game-high 32 points off the bench) and Carmelo Anthony (29 points).
The teams shot nearly even from the floor – 43 percent for the Knicks and 45 percent for the Celtics – but New York was able to get off 21 more shots, a sign of its dominance not only on second-chance shots but in energy overall.
Even worse, Boston had 20 turnovers, which New York turned into 17 points, which was also the Knicks’ largest lead in a game that never seemed to be much of one.
After a tight start, the Knicks, who won their fifth straight, utilized a back-breaking 14-0 run in the second quarter to separate themselves. A Smith 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer gave New York a 15-point lead entering the fourth.
The fans began to file out midway through the final quarter, having seen enough.
“We just didn’t have it,” Rivers said. “I wish I knew why.”
The Celtics had talked in weeks past that they weren’t concerned with trying to move up in the standings to try to earn home-court advantage.
Now, such a possibility is gone.
The Celtics sit in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, 1½ games ahead of Milwaukee.
If the Celtics end up tied with the Bucks in the final playoff spot, Milwaukee will own the tiebreaker as they’ve beaten Boston in three of their four matchups this season.
Which means the Celtics would be the East’s eighth-seeded team and would face powerhouse Miami in the first round of the playoffs.
“Listen, the decision we’re making with Kevin is the right one,” Rivers said. “But we still want to win games.
“We’re not going to let one game say that we’re not going to win any more games. It’s silly to me to even think that way. We have to get ready for tomorrow and go from there.”
But there are plenty of kinks that the Celtics, who play in Cleveland Wednesday night, need to iron out between now and the playoffs.
Chief among them is not getting bullied around the rim, though that’s easier said than done with their enforcer, Garnett, on the sideline.
The Celtics tried to play small ball with Garnett out, but the Knicks played it better. Smith couldn’t be stopped and Anthony did what he pleased.
“Their small lineup attacked ours; our small lineup settled,” Rivers said.
Jeff Green scored a team-high 19 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and had 6 assists. Pierce had 16 points. Jordan Crawford made his first start as a Celtic and scored 14.
The Celtics did make a short charge by opening the second half on an 8-2 run, a spurt that came after they started pushing the ball, which Rivers had preached before the game.
But the Knicks snuffed that out. Boston hurt its own cause by slowing down and giving the ball away too often and too easily.
“We’ve got to play more as a team, plain and simple,” Green said.
It can be hard to play as one with so many missing parts.
“We just can’t let that be our excuse,” Green said. “We still have guys who can go out here and play on the floor. We’ve just got to come together as a team and find a way.”
The toll of damage suffered has been building, man by man, game by game, and it wasn’t until Tuesday that the effects showed. The Celtics’ next goal is to hide those effects again — and fast.