The Three-Pointer: No statement from Celtics

by: Paul Flannery on Fri, 04/08/2011 - 12:01am

All week long, the Celtics kept saying that they didn’t believe in statement games — which is good because the only message they sent in a 97-81 loss to the Bulls on Thursday is that Chicago is clearly the class of the Eastern Conference. At least in the regular season. (Click here for a game recap).

The funny thing about statement games late in the regular season is that they are quickly forgotten once the playoffs begin. Anyone remember the 29-point hurting the Cavs put on them heading into the 2009 playoffs?

But this was a game the Celtics were clearly invested in winning, and essentially nothing went right offensively. The Bulls are the best defensive team in the league, but Boston played right into their hands by not getting out in transition and passing up decent looks for tougher ones later in the shot clock. They also didn’t help their cause by missing so many layups.

Rajon Rondo was non-existent in the first half, and Ray Allen once again disappeared from the gameplan. Allen wound up taking seven shots in the second half, making just one, and very few of them were off screens or anything that could be considered “open.” That’s a reoccurring problem that shows no signs of getting fixed.

There were other culprits in this debacle, including Glen Davis who made just one of eight shots and allowed himself to be taken out of the game by the ageless Kurt Thomas, he of the crazy eyes and rugged elbows to match.

Here again was a perfect opportunity for Celtics fans to lament the absence of Kendrick Perkins, who surely would have had Davis’ back and gone stare for stare with Thomas. But what would Perkins have done to help them get on track offensively? That was where the real problems were to be found for the Celtics, who shot just 38 percent and made only 12-of-38 shots in the entire second half.

So, they got blown out on national television in a statement game. Does it loss mean anything besides effectively completing their fall from the top seed in the Eastern Conference? In a word, no.

The Celtics will ultimately be judged on their postseason play, and in reality they lost any claim on the top seed after blowing winnable games against the Grizzlies and Bobcats at home two weeks ago. Not to mention their lethargic play through most of March.

They will enter the playoffs with as many questions as answers, which is certainly disconcerting, but not necessarily a death sentence. Rondo, Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett combined to score 39 points on 15-for-43 shooting and it goes without saying that they won’t win anything if they play that poorly.

Their bad night started with Rondo, which is where we’ll begin:  

DERRICK ROSE BY A TKO

It’s not surprising that the presumptive MVP Derrick Rose would outscore Rondo, but 16-to-nothing in the first half? As he did in their last meeting, Rose overwhelmed the Celtics defense with his mad dashes to the basket and when he wasn’t finishing as only he can, the paint was wide open for his teammates thanks to all the attention he drew.

Rondo came out far more aggressive in the second half, but the damage was already done and he couldn’t keep pace with Rose. After a brief Rondo flurry to open the second half, Rose put the finishing touches on a 30-point, 8-assist exclamation point of a performance. Rondo finished with a mere seven points and six assists.

Doc Rivers said the other day that he’s given up trying to read Rondo, but one should have felt safe to assume that he would have been ready for Rose. As inscrutable as he often is, it’s downright baffling that he would get torched by Rose to such a degree in front of the entire basketball world.

If the last five weeks have taught us anything, it’s that the Celtics have a very hard time getting anything accomplished offensively if Rondo isn’t engaged. More than anyone, he has the Celtics’ hopes in the palm of his hand and it’s gotten to the point where it’s fair to wonder which Rondo is going to show up on a nightly basis. 

THE DEFENSE WASN’T SO GREAT EITHER

As a team, the Bulls shoot 36 percent from 3-point range, which is about league average. If they have a fatal flaw, it’s a lack of outside shooting beyond Kyle Korver. But like everyone else in the league, the Bulls are very good at making wide-open 3’s and they had a number of them against the Celtics, making 9-for-22 from long range.

Rivers had just finished telling the television audience that his team had to close out better on shooters, when Korver drained another after a late close by Jeff Green. That led the coach to call a Gregg Popovich-esque timeout 30 seconds into the second quarter for the sole purpose of staring in bewilderment at Green.

The Bulls didn’t shoot worse than 45 percent in any of the four quarters, and you simply can’t expect to stay with a team that plays that level of defense without playing some of your own. 

SEEDING MATTERS

For all practical purposes the Celtics were never going to get the top seed from Chicago, no matter how Thursday’s game played out. They would have had to run the table and hoped the Bulls would split their last four games to get it done. Now they are tied with the Heat once again for second place in the East, making Sunday’s game with Miami the far more important matchup.

Everyone knows the stakes by now: homecourt advantage in the second round, although the fear of playing a banged-up Sixers team in the first round has abated somewhat. 

In between are two pesky back-to-backs with the Wizards, which will hold the real key to their playoff positioning. The Celtics have been downright dreadful in similar scenarios this season and it wouldn’t be a shock if Rivers held out some of his key players in either one of those games.

This isn’t so much a race to the finish as it’s a long struggle up Heartbreak Hill with the finish line somewhere off in the distance. The Celtics have had their chances to allow themselves some breathing room, but now they are just about of reprieves. One way or another they have to finish the race before the real one begins.