WALTHAM — The answer to the Celtics’ faint playoff prayers was standing a few feet away as Avery Bradley entertained a media throng that was like motorists rubber-necking for a glimpse of a bad accident.
Rajon Rondo was on the floor at the Celtics’ practice facility calmly popping jumpers with a towel tied around his surgically repaired knee, while his teammates, who have shot like they have one hand tied behind their backs without him, talked about being down, 3-0, to the New York Knicks in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Rondo isn’t coming back this series and neither are the Celtics.
The odds and the talent gap between the Celtics and Knicks are too great to overcome. Even in a city that has been on both sides of improbable 3-0 comebacks, with the Red Sox winning in 2004 and the Bruins collapsing in 2010, it’s too much to believe the Celtics can become the first team in NBA history to do it.
The combination of Celtic Pride and the championship spirit of future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could allow the Celtics to avoid an ignominious sweep Sunday in Game 4 at TD Garden. But the parquet will be packed up sooner rather than later.
One person who should not have an accusatory finger pointed at him for the failure to get out of the first round is coach Doc Rivers. The NBA is a players’ league and Rivers doesn’t have enough of them this time.
I asked Rivers whether his team, which has not cracked the 80-point barrier in any game of this series, has the firepower to compete with the Knicks.
“I don’t know that. But if you don’t have it then you’ve got to take their firepower away,” Rivers said. “If you don’t have enough firepower . . . as far as offensive firepower, we don’t want to get into a gunfight with them. Let’s just put it that way. Let’s try to be anti-NRA and take some of their guns away, which I am.”
I’ll say what Rivers can’t before Game 4. Without Rondo, and with Garnett and Pierce unable to box out Father Time, his team is full of blanks, while the Knicks have hotshots Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, and Raymond Felton.
Rivers’s team is offensively anemic, but it isn’t iron deficient. They’ve hit plenty of it in this series.
The Knicks and Celtics have played 12 quarters of basketball. In four of those quarters the Celtics have scored 8 points, 11 points, 12 points, and 13 points. That’s a third of the series with 44 combined points.
His team averaging just 75 points per game in the series, Rivers is probably wistfully longing for the days he had loose cannons Glen Davis and Nate Robinson coming off his bench (well, maybe that’s a stretch).
It’s laughable when the Celtics lament their defense in this series. Saying we have to play better defense has become a cliché crutch wielded by players and coaches. In a sport in which the opponent is going to put the ball in the basket (not counting free throws) a minimum of 35 to 40 times a game, usually, defense has become a disproportionate talking point.
This isn’t 1994, when Pat Riley bastardized and aesthetically brutalized the game with the Knicks. You can’t win a playoff series averaging 75 points per game, even if you erect a brick wall in the paint on the other end. It’s called basket-ball for a reason.
“We’re missing so many easy things. Our defense is good,” said Jeff Green, one of the few bright lights in this series. “A team that is averaging 100 points per game during the regular season now they’re averaging [87.3] points per game. I mean, we’re averaging 75 points a game. We’re missing a lot of easy stuff. We’ve just got to continue to be aggressive and continue to work our offense.”
The signature moment of this series was the opening of Game 3, when Pierce and KG missed back-to-back layups. Those missed shots had nothing to do with coaching.
Some have wondered why Rivers keeps going to Pierce on the pick and roll when it’s not working. Pierce is averaging 18.7 points per game in the series, but he’s shooting 40.8 percent from the field and averaging 5.3 turnovers per game.
If Pierce can’t score consistently on the smaller Felton, a player he would have sliced and diced into bite-sized pieces three years ago, there is not a bit of basketball strategy by Rivers that can overcome that. The same goes for a hobbled KG, who is shooting 38.2 percent from the field, or Bradley handling the basketball like it just came out of the microwave.
“You can’t put it on the coaching staff,” said Jason Terry (31.8 percent field goal percentage in the series). “It’s about the players now. We’ve got to play the game.”
“He’s not playing,” said Green. “He’s on the sideline. It has to be us.”
The Celtics flourished early on without Rondo because teams were caught offguard and Pierce and KG were fresh. Now, teams know how to play the Rondo-less Celtics, and the elder statesmen had to expend a great deal of energy making sure this team made the playoffs.
“We don’t have a big margin of error. We knew that going into it, and unfortunately we’ve made errors. We’ve made a lot of errors,” said Rivers. “Even early on the first quarter [of Game 3] it was still close. We gave up shots that defensively we can’t give up. Offensively, we broke down on sets that we work on every day, and so as a coach you just keep pushing them to do it right. It’s hard.”
The Celtics still have pride, but that’s not enough to make NBA history and avoid becoming it.