In the past two weeks, the Boston Celtics have participated in four meaningful games, and in each of them have relinquished their lead and lost the game. Granted, the opposition has included three of the top five teams in the NBA. However, these are the likely playoff opponents the Celtics will face, and will need to defeat to claim another NBA Championship. In each of these games, in a disturbing trend, the Celtics have been thoroughly outscored in either the third or fourth quarter. Other troubling signs have come to surface as well, such as the play of the Celtics stars, or their inexplicably vanishing defense.
The first of these games took place on January 28th, against the Magic in Orlando. The Magic are conference rivals, defending Conference Champions, and certainly a team that Boston would need to beat to advance to the NBA Finals. The Celtics came out of the gate strongly, scoring 34 points and keeping the Magic to just 23. The second and third quarters were stalemates, the teams scored 17 and 21 points in each quarter. Up until that point, the Celtics were playing strong defense. However, it all fell apart for the Celtics in the fourth quarter when the Magic posted 35 points and kept Boston to just 22 points in the quarter. Rasheed Wallace was actually a lone bright spot in the Celtics front court, scoring 17 points on 50% shooting. The Celtics front court starters did not fair so well. They made only 6 for 22 shots, netting just 22 points. This includes Pierce and Garnett, two of the Celtics big three – both of whom were playing (and continue to play) with injury.
The next big loss came against the Atlanta Hawks on January 29th. Like the Magic, the Hawks are conference contenders and may spar with the Celtics in the NBA playoffs. The Celtics and Hawks played an even first quarter that night, with the Hawks leading 23 to 22. The Hawks increased their lead with a 30 to 19 second quarter. Boston came roaring back in the 3rd quarter, regaining the lost ground with a 32 to 21 surge. However, in the fourth quarter, the Celtics were unable to break 20 points for the second time in the game. They scored just 18 points while allow 26 to the Hawks. Wallace, who had been a bright spot the night before, scored just 6 points in 25 minutes on 2 of 8 shooting. He committed four fouls and had three turnovers. And while Pierce and Garnett recovered from the previous night’s poor shooting, this time contributing 50 of the Celtics points, Ray Allen could not find his mark. He went 4 of 13 for just 9 points.
On January 31st, the L.A. Lakers came to Bean town for ABC’s first nationally televised game of the season. This time, the Lakers jumped out to a 30 to 19 lead. The Celtics reversed the scoring in the second, and took the lead thanks to a 33 to 17 quarter. They won the third quarter by two points. However, the fourth quarter showcased another break down. The Celtics scored just 16 points and allowed 24 to the Lakers, including a last second shot from Kobe Bryant that put the Lakers up for good. In nearly 21 minutes, Rasheed Wallace posted only three points after hitting one of his three three-point shot attempts. Ray Allen scored only seven points. Kevin Garnett had only 10. And Paul Pierce 15.
After those consecutive losses, the Celtics took their frustrations out on the Wizards, the Heat, and the Nets – all teams in terrible 10 game stretches – winning those games handily. However, today the Celtics posted another loss in a big game against the Orlando Magic. It featured another second half collapse. The Celtics came into the second half with an 11 point lead, and looked to continue their dominance as the third quarter began. But once again, their defense collapsed and the Celtics allowed 36 points and scored just 11. Though they did out score the Magic by seven in the fourth quarter, the damage was done. Another bad loss has been posted in the game logs. This time, Rasheed Wallace was unable to contribute against the Magic. He posted two points on 1 of 6 shooting. The Celtics’ “Big Three” netted just 40 points. And Kendrick Perkins brought his scoring total against the Magic to 17 points over four games, adding two points to his earlier total of 15.
The signs are troubling for the Celtics. Their collapses in these games have been complete. They have lost their defensive and offensive focus at the same time. Their star players have wilted under pressure, including Rasheed Wallace, who was brought in to be their finisher off the bench. Surely, injury has contributed to these problems. But there is a sense, in watching the Celtics, that there are more problems than just the physical. Their commitment to defense is no longer what it used to be. There are layups for the opposition where there used to be only fouls or blocked shots. The Leprechauns seem to have abandoned The Garden – miracle threes after hustle plays are rimming out, rather than splashing the net. But, most shockingly, the sense of hustle and sacrifice that was palpable in the 2007-2008 season is waning, and in trouble of being completely gone. Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen have 31 games left to mend their ailing bodies and minds and rejuvenate a team that appears to be on the wrong side of a peak.