Things just never worked out the way they were supposed to this season for the Celtics. Jason Terry and Courtney Lee could never replace Ray Allen. Rajon Rondo blew out his knee, and slowly the team’s cracks turned into craters.
So, this was the best they had, pushing the more talented New York Knicks to six games before losing Friday night, 88-80, at TD Garden. The Celtics should not be ashamed because they were the inferior team in talent, playing on the will of aging Kevin Garnett and past-his-prime Paul Pierce.
If this series proved anything, it was that the Celtics can no longer depend on those two for primary scoring. Their star power is gone. They entered this battle with the Knicks carrying a handful of dirt in one hand and a dull knife in the other.
The Celtics fought valiantly but they didn’t have the depth, talent, or chemistry to overcome the Knicks. New York is very flawed, but it still had enough to stymie the Celtics’ confused and make-it-up-as-they-go offense, which managed 27 points in the first half Friday night, before roaring back for 33 in the fourth quarter and cutting a 26-point deficit to 4.
But even then, when the Celtics possessed all the momentum, with a raucous crowd, and the Knicks confused, they didn’t have enough to come all the way back. Pierce had nothing left to carry his team to victory. Garnett did not attempt a shot in the fourth quarter, and the offense was relegated to Jeff Green driving and getting fouled.
With Rondo out for the season, no Jared Sullinger to help with offensive rebounds, and no backup point guard or reserve center, the Celtics were a shell of their former selves. If this was indeed the end of an era, it’s too bad that they didn’t at least finish it healthy.
So, that may give Danny Ainge more reason to perhaps bring the core of this team back, with an upgraded bench. Doc Rivers fully understood his team lacked the talent to play the Knicks straight up, so he had to go to trick offenses and defenses, shorten his bench, and rely on Pierce and Garnett for heavy minutes.
In the end, when Garnett was removed from Friday night’s game in the final minute, he and Rivers shared a hug. Both realized they finished about where they should have, a first-round elimination in a difficult series. The Celtics had their moments, but they also had their periods of offensive ineptitude, such as the second halves of Games 1 and 2, and first halves of Game 3 and 6. There were moments where the Celtics looked like a team that barely finished over .500, that was ready for the offseason of change to begin and for the next era to be ushered in.
And then Celtic Pride returned in Friday night’s fourth quarter, which made their faithful even more perplexed. But they shouldn’t have been. The Celtics spent their season with a permanent pass in the “wildly inconsistent” lane, unable to ever play well long enough to get comfortable or confident.
“You know, we were up and down all year, and then it showed in this series how up and down we were game in and game out,” said Pierce, who shot 36.8 percent with 32 turnovers in the series. “Just goes to show, you just can’t turn it on when the playoffs come. This is something we have to build throughout the regular season.”
Pierce and Garnett both knew it, when they looked down the bench and saw an erratic Jason Terry, Courtney Lee playing with little confidence, and no legitimate backup center or shot-blocker. They knew Avery Bradley wasn’t really a point guard, and three players signed from the Chinese Basketball Association weren’t going to significantly upgrade the roster.
This team had so many limitations that there was no mechanism for “turning it on” for the playoffs. There was that famous exchange in the “Rumble in the Jungle,” when George Foreman, exhausted from fighting in the heat of the Congo, hit Muhammad Ali with a body shot, and Ali asked, “Is that all you got, George?” And Foreman knew the answer was yes.
This was all they had. A flurry of Garnett. Green ramming his way to the free throw line. An occasional Pierce leaner. Of all the disappointing endings to seasons of the recent Big Three era, this should be the least disheartening.
The Celtics were blown out in Game 6 against the Lakers in 2010, and then melted down in the fourth quarter of Game 7. Last year, they didn’t even challenge a focused LeBron James in Game 6, and again fell apart in the fourth quarter of Game 7. Those endings were tear-jerkers.
Friday night just confirmed what we already knew. The Celtics were a limited bunch. Their top point guard gone. Their first-round draft pick gone. Their bench rubble. Their future Hall of Famers drained and descending. The talent gap was large. Maybe next year will be different. Maybe the Celtics will be loaded. Maybe they will get younger. But for this bunch, this was their final stop. They had nothing left.