Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 7, 2013

A Long Dark Winter Awaits The Celtics

Well at least they won’t lose them all. That cheery news, laden with the customary double intent of faint praise, was what fans of the Boston Celtics were given Wednesday evening. After going 0-4 in the first week of the new NBA season, the Celtics finally put one in the win column, defeating the Utah Jazz 97-87 at TD Garden. On offense Boston recorded its second highest point total of the young campaign, while defensively the team matched its best effort so far in terms of points allowed. The first win of the season of course also meant the maiden victory for rookie coach Brad Stevens, lured away from his successful career at Butler University last July with a six-year contract worth a reported $22 million.

Boston’s win was greeted by cheers and a palpable sense of relief from the 17,000 plus crammed into the Garden and the many more watching from home on Comcast’s regional sports network. But before anyone gets too excited let’s make it clear. These Celtics are a bad team; in all likelihood bad in historic proportions. They will be painful to watch for their loyal fans and a constant reminder of just how quickly fortunes can change in the NBA.

The Celtics are coming off a stretch of six straight trips to the postseason, and playoff appearances in ten of the past twelve years. When they finished third in the Atlantic Division last season it ended a run of five straight division titles. Just two years ago they took the Miami Heat to a Game 7 in the Conference Finals. One year prior to that they lost an epic seven game NBA Finals series to their long-time rivals from Los Angeles; two years after winning a league-leading 17th championship by defeating those same Lakers in six games. During those six successful campaigns Boston posted an average winning percentage of .661, equal to 54 wins in a full season (the 2011-12 NBA season was shortened by the league’s lockout of its players).

Yet even before the Celtics fell to the New York Knicks in the first round of last spring’s playoffs, allowing the Madison Square Garden residents to move beyond the opening round for the first time in more than a decade, it was clear that the glory days for this era of the Green was coming to an end. Boston had a winning season in 2012-13 by the narrowest possible margin, going 41-40. Captain Paul Pierce led the team with 18.6 points per game, but that was more than three points below his career average, while his shooting accuracy fell to its lowest level in nearly a decade.

Thirty-five years old at the end of the season, Pierce had no intention of retiring, but with his contract up the Celtics had little incentive to offer a multi-year deal to a star in decline. So in July Celtics’ President of Basketball Operations sent Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the two cornerstones of the team’s recent success, along with Jason Terry, to Brooklyn for what seemed like half the Nets’ roster and three future first-round draft picks. The trade came just weeks after Ainge allowed head coach Doc Rivers to depart for the L.A. Clippers after Rivers made clear he had no wish to stay through a rebuilding period. The departure of Rivers in turn opened the door for Stevens, the latest in a long line of highly successful college coaches who have opted to try replicating that success at the pro level.

Those efforts have ended in failure more often than not, and the 37-year old Stevens has to adjust to the different pacing and pressures of basketball at the professional level and the NBA’s grinding 82-game schedule while overcoming the fact that he looks younger than some of his players. But the highly unusual 6-year contract that Ainge and the Celtics agreed to is the surest sign that the team is willing to be patient and knows that this is one rebuilding project that may take a while. That much is already evident.

The team’s four opening losses were to Toronto, Milwaukee, Detroit and Memphis. Not counting each of their wins over Boston, those four teams had a combined record of 4-10 through Wednesday. In the Celtics home opener they led the Bucks by 22 points in the second half before collapsing down the stretch and losing by 7. When the Jazz came to town for Boston’s second game at the Garden on Wednesday, the Celtics faced one of just two other squads that were still without a win this season. After falling behind early Boston dominated for much of the game. At halftime Boston led by 16 points. In the third quarter the margin ballooned to 26, and it was 22 with the final twelve minutes to play. Then as the Garden crowd became eerily quiet, the Celtics started to reprise their game against Milwaukee.

Boston couldn’t hit a basket, missing eight out of nine shots; as the lead shrank to 18, then 12, then into single digits, and finally all the way down to 6 points with more than three minutes still to play. In the end the Jazz couldn’t overcome 22 turnovers, and Boston had its first victory; but not before 79-year old Tommy Heinsohn, likely in his final year doing commentary for the Celtics’ TV broadcasts, let it be known what he thought of the team’s disorganized play and star-free lineup.

Heinsohn won eight championships wearing a Celtics uniform and two more as head coach during the Dave Cowens – John Havlicek era. He understands the history of the franchise and the meaning of those 17 banners that hang high up in the rafters. Before they tore down the old Garden and greatly increased the population of homeless rats in Boston’s north end, they took up the parquet floor square by square, and later installed it in the new Garden. While much of it has since been sold as souvenirs, pieces of the original floor are still integrated into the current parquet. So Heinsohn knows that not only his and Cowens’ and Havlicek’s sneakers, but those of guys named Bird and Parish and McHale, and more recently Pierce, Garnett and Allen, and once upon a time the immortal Russell, have raced across that wood.

Surely Tommy Heinsohn understands, as do most fans, that in Boston the recent era of the Big Three had run its course. Last summer’s moves were inevitable, and hopefully will pay dividends a few years hence. Some hold out hope that the mid-season return of point guard Rajon Rondo will spark this year’s team to an unexpectedly strong finish. More likely is the scenario in which a healthy Rondo is dealt to a contender in exchange for still more hope for the future. Meanwhile this week Sports Illustrated’s NBA power rankings have the Celtics 30th and last. A bright future led by a brilliant young coach may yet be in the offing, but on Causeway Street in Boston, the present is decidedly dark.

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