NEW YORK — What once defined these transitioning Celtics doesn’t define them anymore. They have turned into just another run-of-the-mill pushover, a team that sometimes considers effort optional, such as Tuesday night against the Knicks.
The Celtics didn’t compete from the start in a 114-88 loss, and it wasn’t that they lost to the rejuvenated Knicks, it was how they lost. They refused to play defense, falling behind, 21-5, as the Knicks either ran pick-and-rolls or launched uncontested 3-pointers.
An early identity of Brad Stevens’s team was effort and passion. It seems as if president of basketball operations Danny Ainge’s desire to squeeze assets out of every part of the team, such as trading Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford, have robbed the spirit from a group that was brimming with it just weeks ago.
The Celtics have no real offense unless you consider Jeff Green’s occasional desire to challenge the defense. Rajon Rondo is still recovering from knee surgery and his shot is still erratic, as he missed 10 of 13 shots and finished with 7 points.
The bench has been reduced to Chris Johnson, a former D-League standout launching lefthanded 3-pointers from the corner, and as pretty as his shot is, the Celtics have to produce more offense.
The Knicks played as if they were practicing, running their plays against dummy defenses, always finding the open man at the basket and taking exactly what the Celtics were giving, which was everything — the open 3-pointer, an alley-oop to Tyson Chandler, an open midrange shot from Carmelo Anthony, or even a shot by little-used Jeremy Tyler from great position in the post.
The Celtics may be playing strictly for the future, unconcerned about results this season, but what made them alluring and inspiring the first two months was their effort, consistently outhustling their opponents. Now that’s not the case, or at least it hasn’t been the case two of the past three games, when they were sliced up by Oklahoma City and battered by the Knicks.
“We have to really analyze and look at what we’re doing,” Stevens said. “We’re going through a drought right now scoring, but at the same time, the way we defended we wouldn’t have beaten them if we scored tonight. Obviously I’m frustrated with how we played.”
Stevens has spent the season lauding opposing teams after blowout losses, refraining from criticizing his patchwork lineup, but Tuesday night he looked disgusted and bewildered. It’s one thing to lose when the opposing team is dominant or has an outstanding individual performance, but the Celtics allowed the Knicks to shoot 61.5 percent and score 63 points in the first half, and only 17 came from Anthony.
Boston has now dropped 18 of 21 games and the losses continue to get more discouraging. The Thunder beat up on the Celtics without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. On Sunday, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce combined to score 12 points and Deron Williams scored 7 and yet the Nets led the entire second half.
Not only are the Celtics offensively challenged, they lack that player who is comfortable enough to take control when they desperately need a basket. Rondo has never been that type of player. He’s the point guard, the distributor. Green, with this entire season an opportunity to show he’s a top-30 player, has failed to become the primary option.
He was 4 for 13 for 14 points Tuesday night, with 7 rebounds and 3 turnovers. He did most of his work when the game was already decided in the second half. Meanwhile, after looking as if he was prepared to take some of the scoring responsibility, Jared Sullinger, besieged by nagging injuries, has averaged just 8.7 points in his past seven games.
So it’s on Stevens to find an answer and the players to respond to their biggest challenge in the final 35 games, maintaining their pride and respectability. Stevens and Rondo said the issue Tuesday night was effort, and that’s discouraging.
“It was everything, we didn’t do anything well as a team, individually, and they exposed us,” Rondo said. “You gotta continue to demand [effort] on a consistent basis. We play so many games we can’t take nights off and when we do, the score ends up looking like this. And also, keep in mind they came here and we beat them by , so you knew they had to defend their home territory and we didn’t come out with any effort from the start.”
Perhaps this is the team Ainge wanted as he attempts to prepare for the June draft. But being hammered on a nightly basis for the final 35 games will do nothing but leave a stench over the organization if effort and pride continue to be an issue.
If winning and losing aren’t priorities as the final months expire, then development and progress should be. Right now, they are fading afterthoughts.