Not to place too much pressure on the Celtics, but they put themselves in this position. By losing to the likes of the Hornets, Pistons, and Cavaliers over the past week — not exactly a sparkling trio — the Celtics have made the next three games critical to this season.
They enter Thursday night’s game against New York seemingly unprepared for the rematch, and with the Knicks wanting nothing short of the Celtics’ blood. Forward Carmelo Anthony nearly hopped on top of the Boston bus in search of Kevin Garnett Jan. 7 after hearing four quarters of his expletives and putdowns. Anthony wants nothing more than to drop 50 at TD Garden.
Despite New York’s additions of Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler, the Celtics have been able to consistently beat up on the Knicks. But this is a nationally televised opportunity for the Knicks to make two statements: 1. the Celtics are a washed-up team headed for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs; and 2. New York is destined to win the Atlantic Division, something it hasn’t done since 1993-94, when some dude named Doc Rivers was the point guard.
After being lambasted by their coach following a 103-88 loss at Detroit Sunday, the Celtics went out Tuesday and allowed second-year guard Kyrie Irving to score 40 points and lead the struggling Cavaliers to a 95-90 victory at Quicken Loans Arena.
It’s not that the Celtics played badly to tune out their coach, it’s that they don’t have the cohesion to play well in long stretches. The fact remains that Boston is a big game on most teams’ schedules. Although they are slipping, the Celtics are considered a solid opponent, even by elite teams. They are still a litmus test.
And that is certainly the case for the Knicks, who want nothing more than to embarrass the reeling Celtics. They have been focused on this game since Garnett turned Anthony into an embittered shell of himself, missing 20 shots.
The Celtics showed with that performance — a 102-96 victory — that they are capable of beating anyone, but that type of passion hasn’t been hanging around long enough. The problem, it seems, is that the newcomers and the veterans are still rather unfamiliar with each other.
They don’t have to be close buddies on the court, but they have to blend. The issue Tuesday in Cleveland was that the Celtics, with their many rotations and many looks, weren’t sure how to play together. Rivers believed the team’s depth and versatility would be strengths, but they have become the biggest weaknesses.
With little chemistry established in the first three months, the Celtics have no idea what to expect from each other.
There are times, such as Tuesday, when Courtney Lee gets the ball at his favorite spot — the baseline for a 3-pointer — and is unsure whether to release the shot.
Or when Jeff Green isn’t sure he should take shots away from Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo or just wait his turn.
The lack of offensive cohesion spills into the defense. Against Cleveland, the Celtics again forgot how to defend the pick-and-roll. Tristan Thompson scored 12 points in the second quarter, and although he is an emerging player, he shouldn’t score 12 points in any quarter against a focused Boston defense.
Because they have lost the past four games, the next three — vs. New York, Atlanta, and Miami — are critical. The season is halfway done and the Celtics, at 20-21, are the definition of average. Because there is no elite team in the Eastern Conference, there remains time to make up ground, but the Celtics can’t get away with just beating the bad teams (and let’s face it, bad teams tend to give the Celtics the most trouble).
The second half of the season begins Thursday, and the Celtics have to respond with something better and more passionate than they have submitted in the first 41 games. Can they? Yes, if they can learn each other and realize opponents are motivated to snatch their pride away. The Knicks are at the top of that list.
This is a bigger game than most. The Celtics have something more inside them than they have shown; the question is whether they realize that.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe