They've lost seven of their last 10 games and 12 of their last 18. A few days ago they showed some grind and grit until they ran out of gas and lost Game 1 of their first round playoff series with the Knicks. They'll probably fall to Carmelo Anthony in five games. Might even get swept.
And then what?
What will the Celtics do?
If the answer is "reload," then they're several weeks late in the process for that. They had the perfect chance, and the right excuse, to bust it up and start over the moment an MRI delivered the bad news to Rajon Rondo. At that point, the Celtics had a decision to make, and after heavy deliberation their stubborn ego and tremendous pride told them to go for it. Keep the band together. Playoffs or bust. Make the Heat sweat.
Hmmm. How's that working out?
The more you see the Celtics, the more you know they have a lot in common with a 45-year-old former Hollywood sex symbol, barely holding on to the glorious past, desperately trying to delay the inevitable. Well. What they're about to learn the hard way is how Father Time is undefeated. The core of the Celtics, meaning Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, has seen better days. And that wouldn't be so bad if Boston had reinforcements in place, ready to step in and take the franchise into the next phase. Only three Celtics are 30 and over, which seems to dismiss the notion of the Celtics being too gray to be good.
But the next generation is confined to Rondo, who may not be ready for next season or ever the same again after knee surgery, and Jeff Green, who has a habit of fading in and out. The changes the Celtics could have made, and maybe should've made, at midseason will stare them in the face very soon, this time with a harsher frown.
That's why this playoff series with the Knicks carries a referendum for Boston. The only reason the Celtics refused to remake the team after Rondo's injury was because they felt they had a shot. They thought they could get beyond the first round in a weak conference, flash some of that old Celtic pride, watch KG beat his chest, ride the big-shot reputation of Pierce and have just enough from the supporting cast to return to the East finals for the second straight year. And you must admire that mentality, on a certain level. Doc Rivers, Danny Ainge, Pierce and KG don't surrender easily. They want to win. Their competitive nature tells them they can be champions, even when common sense might say otherwise.
They destroyed themselves against the Knicks in a barrage of late mistakes that cost them a second-half lead in Game 1.
"We're better than that," said guard Avery Bradley. But are they really?
When the Celtics rallied strong and won seven straight games after Rondo went down, it gave them ammo against anyone who said they were nuts for keeping this unit together. It was a classic told-you-so moment. The Celtics were seven games over .500 and threatening to overtake the Nets in the standings in early March. They were being saluted for their guts and glory. You know, tough team and all that.
As the trade deadline passed, KG said: "I bleed green" and "I'll die a Celtic." Boston ate it up.
Nobody bothered to notice that, besides KG and Pierce and Rivers, all was not well with the Celtics once you peeked below the surface. True to their 41-40 record, the Celtics are barely a cut above average. Their inconsistency was captured by Green, who kept teasing until late in the season when he finally put together a solid month.
"I've just got to be more aggressive," he said, after scoring 20 points in the first half against the Knicks and then managing just six the rest of the game.
Jason Terry, hand-picked to replace Ray Allen, struggled all season with his jumper and was scoreless in Game 1. The Jet, aging rapidly before our eyes, went from a 747 in Dallas to a crop duster in Boston. Bradley doesn't have a point guard's mentality or skill. We saw as much in Game 1 against the Knicks when the Celtics, without a true ball-handler, had 20 turnovers. Bradley averaged 2.1 assists -- yes! -- this season, and therefore his teammates had to create their own shots. Courtney Lee and Brandon Bass had spurts and moments but were nothing special.
Yes, Garnett did take a break the last few weeks to rest up for the post-season and that cost the Celtics a few wins. Yet, if not for their ability to make a defensive stand every now and then, the Celtics would've missed the playoffs completely.
Right before the trading deadline, with Rondo out for the season, Ainge had to place a certain value on making the playoffs vs. getting an early start on rebuilding. Pierce was the most obvious commodity; he still has a presence and best of all, his contract doesn't go beyond 2014. A handful of playoff-bound teams dialed Ainge. Garnett had a no-trade but almost certainly would've waved it and requested a trade out West, where he lives in the off-season -- the Clippers were interested -- if Pierce was traded. Or maybe KG would've even retired.
Either way, Ainge could've gotten young players, expiring contracts and perhaps picks in return for Pierce and KG, and the Celtics, assuming they would miss the playoffs, could've added a lottery pick this summer. But making the playoffs, in the end, was too irresistible. And you can understand. To an extent.
And so here they are, down a game to the Knicks, trying to find a way to ice Carmelo, looking for support from the bench. It all seems so daunting right now. A few years ago, the Celtics had a solid starting five and could pull a few quality subs off the bench. Rondo, Pierce, KG and Allen reached the Finals twice, won once, and if not for injuries might have won another title. It all came together quickly for that crew, just as it appears to be coming apart for this one.
So, what's in store this summer? The Celtics can take the loyalty route and keep Pierce in one uniform for his professional life. And they can do their part to make sure KG dies green, according to his last will and testament. And if they do that they'll slowly regress. They have $73 million committed for next season, $52 million the following year, too handcuffed by the salary cap to get a seat at the free agent table this summer or next.
Turns out they'll need to make some hard, franchise-changing choices involving some key players, which of course will beg the question: Why didn't they think of this before?
Like, when they lost Rondo?