CLEVELAND — This batch of Boston Celtics has always liked to keep things ugly. They want games to be grinds, shooting percentages to be atrocious, opponents to be afraid they will have to scratch and claw just to get a decent look at the basket.
And why not?
It’s worked well so far, with the Celtics winning an NBA championship in 2008 and reaching the Finals again two years later, when they lost to the Lakers in seven games.
It’s been an interesting approach, because this batch of Celtics has always had the means to survive if it ever turned into a shootout. After all, you can’t go wrong with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. And you could do a lot worse than Rajon Rondo when it comes to a point guard to get them the ball — and even occasionally put up some points himself.
But this year, things have been different. This year, these Celtics don’t look like championship contenders.
Garnett is 35 years old and looks as if he’s playing on one good leg. Allen is 36 and having a harder time freeing himself for open jumpers. Pierce is 34 and showing signs of slowing a little, too.
In fact, just getting to the playoffs might take some doing. Staying there might take a basketball miracle.
Following an 86-83 win in Cleveland on Tuesday, the Celtics were 16-17 and clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
With the All-Star break over, and the second half of the year having begun, the Celtics have a little time to make a run, become dangerous, return to being considered a real threat.
But come on. Is that really possible?
“I think that’s something we’ll find out,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “I think we can.”
Each of the Celtics’ four best players (Garnett, Allen, Pierce and Rondo) have missed at least three games. Prior to the Cleveland win, the Celtics had lost five straight and seven of eight.
That’s very un-Celtics-like. Particularly when you consider the manner in which the Celtics have been doing it — getting run out of the gym by pro basketball low-lifes such as New Orleans, Toronto and Detroit (twice).
As Pierce noted, “We’re making it hard on ourselves.”
Now, this isn’t necessarily a huge mystery. On top of their aging stars, the Celtics were forced to reshape the roster in the lockout-shortened off-season.
Center Shaquille O’Neal retired. Big man Glen Davis was traded to Orlando (for Brandon Bass). Guard Delonte West left for Dallas and center Nenad Krstic left to play overseas.
And in the worst news of all, the Celtics learned just before the season that forward Jeff Green had a heart ailment that would require surgery. He’s out for the year.
Taking the spots of the aforementioned were swingman Mickael Pietrus, center Chris Wilcox and guard Keyon Dooling, as well as rookie forward JuJuan Johnson and rookie guard E’Twaun Moore.
Not bad, but not exactly Bill Russell, Larry Bird and John Havlicek, either.
“We have four guys that are really good,” Rivers said. “Then we have a pretty good supporting cast around them.”
So what’s the problem?
“It’s tough,” Rivers said. “Obviously, with the lack of practice time, the lack of training camp and the lack of preseason games … I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the teams that are doing well, for the most part, are teams hat have been together and made very few changes.”
But perhaps a close road win over Cleveland, a win that wasn’t secured until Cavaliers guard Anthony Parker missed a 3-pointer at the final buzzer, can give the Celtics a lift. Perhaps it can be the start of a turnaround.
At this point, if you’re the Celtics, any small victory can be considered a major thrust in the right direction.
“Momentum is important for us right now,” Garnett said. “We have to find a way to get it done. This is going to be a grind right here. A true grind physically. Mentally, we have to be into it and just be ready to hoop.”
But if it doesn’t happen soon, the Celtics may have to take a different approach. They may have to bring in some help from the outside. They might even have to trade one of their stars to make it happen.
Rondo is the most sought-after around the league, and that’s understandable. He’s 26 and has a championship ring. He’s an excellent distributor, outstanding defender and proven winner.
Allen’s name has also been mentioned in trade rumors. And the scuttlebutt before Tuesday’s game was that the Celtics might be looking to make a deal that involves sending veteran center Jermaine O’Neal to Minnesota and landing young forward Michael Beasley in return.
For now, however, the Celtics can only try to march forward with what they have.
Will it be enough? Even Rivers doesn’t know if a the Celtics can actually make a late-season run.
“It would be nice to stay healthy and see if we can actually be consistent,” he said. “We’ve been inconsistent all year. A lot of that is injuries and some of it is us, too. It can’t just be injuries. I think if we can play consistently, then your confidence grows, and then, yes, we can.”