This was Black Sunday for the Green. The Celtics’ season went up in smoke like one of the victory cigars that parquet patriarch Red Auerbach used to puff.
What should have been a Sunday of celebration as the wobbling Celtics snapped their six-game losing streak by tapping into a reservoir of Celtic Pride for a 100-98 double-overtime victory over the hated Miami Heat was a lost cause on Causeway Street. The Celtics’ win and the return of Ray “Benedict” Allen were rendered footnotes by the right knee of point guard Rajon Rondo.
With their All-Star point guard hors de hoops with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Banner No. 18 officially became mission impossible. The Celtics still will make the playoffs, but no Rondo, no rings.
Even the most optimistic of Celtics fans who were clinging to the notion that this inconsistent team, which entered Sunday with a 20-23 record, could channel its procrastinating predecessors and kick it into high gear come playoff time now have to acknowledge that won’t be enough with the New Big Three reduced to the Old Big Two.
This is shaping up as a winter of disconsolation for Boston sports fans. First, the Patriots get smoked in the AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium, and the next Sunday the Celtics lose their best player to a torn ACL. Can somebody encase Tuukka Rask in bubble wrap, please?
It was a strange, drama-filled day at TD Garden.
The Celtics announced just before tip-off that Rondo was a scratch, initially saying he had hyperextended his knee in the team’s double-overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks Friday night, and was headed to New England Baptist Hospital for a “precautionary” MRI.
Allen, whose basketball betrayal still hasn’t been pardoned in these parts, was given a standing ovation during a video retrospective in the first quarter, and then booed pretty much every time he touched the ball thereafter on his way to 21 points.
Then during the game, the Celtics announced that Rondo had been diagnosed with a torn ACL.
But coach Doc Rivers didn’t tell his players the Rondo news until after they had outlasted the LeBrons in a tug of wills and war that would have been over sooner if the Celtics hadn’t hit snooze on the boards. (Miami had a season-high 17 offensive rebounds, one of which led to LeBron James’s 3-pointer that tied the game at 87 at the end of regulation.)
Talk about a buzzkill.
“It was a bit of a blow to everybody in here, me included,” said Kevin Garnett. “We had a tough game. They told us when we came in the locker room. It’s tough. It’s tough on everybody. Young’un, he’s becoming the heart and soul of this team. He’s coming into his own. We’re trying to be supportive for him in his time of need.”
Year Six of the Three-Year Plan already looked like a dubious endeavor. Without Rondo, it’s a lost cause.
The Celtics point guard prodigy can be equal parts transcendent and temperamental on the court, but life without him is not appealing to even the most relentless Rondo critic.
Rondo was clearly this team’s best and most consistent player. He was the player most able to get his own shot, even if he didn’t always take it.
He is a passer nonpareil in the NBA, leading the league in assists (11.1 per game). He has turned the triple-double from an act of excellence into a routine night. His five on the season lead the NBA.
Perhaps, when Garnett and Paul Pierce, who did his best Rondo impression with a triple-double (17 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists) on Sunday, had fewer miles on their NBA odometers they could have compensated for Rondo’s absence on a night-in and night-out basis and carried the Green. But that is asking too much of the Hall of Famers-to-be now.
Call it denial or defiance, but the Celtics refused to acknowledge their season has been issued its last rites in the wake of the loss of Rondo.
Rivers said he wasn’t going to write the Celtics’ obituary. Pierce said he still like the Celtics’ chances in the Eastern Conference. KG said the Celtics would move forward and that winning would be involved.
“Yeah, we love being underdogs,” said Jeff Green. “People have counted us out already, even when we had Rondo. We can’t worry about what people have to say. People are always going to have an opinion. But the only people out there playing are the guys in this locker room. We’ll pull together.”
We’ve often seen the Celtics at their best when they’re doubted, derided, and dismissed. (See: last season or 2010.)
These Celtics court adversity, but Rondo’s injury is calamity.
Rondo’s wounded knee isn’t just a blow for the 2012-13 Celtics, it’s a blow for the future. A necessary part of this season was figuring out whether the next great Celtics team could be built around Rondo.
President of basketball operations Danny Ainge needed to discern whether Rondo was a franchise cornerstone or a trade chip. With a damaged knee, he is neither.
Rondo’s grade as a Franchise Player is now — like the team without him — incomplete. The Celtics are no closer to knowing if he’s the foundation they build around than they were before the season.
Boston can’t trade Rondo either because he’s damaged goods until he returns healthy.
There have been much darker days in Boston basketball — Reggie Lewis collapsing on the Boston Garden court during the 1993 playoffs, Len Bias’s drug overdose two days after the Celtics made him the No. 2 pick in the 1986 draft — but Sunday was a dark day for the Celtics.
It was the day that Boston basketball faded to black for 2013.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.