- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- Go ahead, start making plans for the next couple of months.
In late January, on the day the Boston Celtics learned that All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo would miss the remainder of the season after tearing his ACL, coach Doc Rivers advised reporters to hold off on writing his team off on the heels of a gutsy overtime win over the defending champion Miami Heat.
But this team has no more fight in it, certainly not enough to do what no other team in NBA history has done and rally from the 0-3 hole that the Celtics are currently stranded in after Friday's 90-76 loss to the New York Knicks in Game 3 of an Eastern Conference first-round series at TD Garden.
No, these Celtics, proud as they say they are, seem resigned to their fate. Their season could be over as soon as Sunday's Game 4 in Boston (or maybe Tuesday's Game 5 in New York if they manage to avoid the brooms). Either way, it's hard to believe the Celtics when they say their goal now is to simply win the next game. That would only prolong the agony and delay a rare extended summer vacation.
Forget for a minute the rather paralyzing uncertainty that awaits this summer. There will be plenty of time to ponder a potential roster overhaul depending on the status of their most veteran players. Let's keep the focus on Game 3, in which the Celtics put forth a head-shaking effort that pushed their season to the brink.
Playing at TD Garden for the first time in 16 days, including the first game since last week's marathon bombings, most expected a little something extra from these backs-against-the-wall Celtics, a team that swore it would play with desperation after losing two games in New York to start the series.
Impossibly, Boston came out flat, put together its worst first half of the postseason and trailed by double digits at the intermission as boos rained down. Some homecoming.
"It was very disappointing," said captain Paul Pierce. "A game -- a must-win game -- if we had any hopes of tying this thing up come Sunday. Very disappointing. But, like I said, we put ourselves in this situation and we're the only ones that can get ourselves out of it."
Let's be honest, there's no getting out of it. Anyone who's watched even part of this series knows it. Pierce, Kevin Garnett and rehabbing Rondo probably know it, too. That's why the trio huddled up for a long powwow in the showers inside the team's locker room after Friday's game.
Nearly an hour after the game had ended, Pierce finally emerged, and then Rondo. Pierce said all the things a captain of a team down 0-3 says. ("We definitely have our backs against the wall, but we've got to continue to fight.")
But even Pierce struggled to comprehend how Boston got to this point. The Celtics were hell-bent on avoiding top-seeded Miami in the opening round while stumbling their way to the regular-season finish line. They seemed content to draw the second-seeded Knicks (despite New York's late-season domination of Boston), and, while much of Boston's woes these past three games have been self-inflicted, the Knicks have caused more headaches than the Celtics probably expected.
"Well, I'm definitely surprised. I thought we were a team that matched up well with the Knicks," said Pierce. "I thought we played them pretty good throughout the season. We lost a couple close ones, but coming in I knew this would probably be a long series being that the way we matched up. I really am surprised that we are down 0-3 right now."
Should he really be that surprised? This is a Celtics team that shuffled its starting lineup (yet again) heading into Game 3, hoping to simply take some strain off Avery Bradley, the third-year shooting guard who has been tasked with filling Rondo's shoes and running the first-unit offense. Despite moving Jason Terry into the starting five to help with ballhandling, Bradley finished 1-of-4 shooting for two points and was minus-9 in plus/minus overall.
Debate amongst Celtics diehards over the past few days has centered around whether Jordan Crawford should have leapfrogged Courtney Lee on the depth chart. Others have wondered if Boston needed to find more playing time for the likes of Chinese Basketball Association imports Shavlik Randolph and Terrence Williams.
Does that sound like the roster decisions of a playoff contender?
Asked how he liked the new-look lineup on Friday, Doc Rivers answered a reporter's question with, "I don't know. We're 0-3. I may start you in [Game 4], if you can give me something." Rivers then pledged to watch the tape to further gauge the lineup's effectiveness, but cracked, "That'll be fun."
It's fair to wonder if Rondo alone would even be enough to swing this series. He'd undoubtedly help, but Boston's offense has been so atrocious that 70 points seemed like an impossible goal at times during Friday's game. The Celtics' offense has been an absolute disaster, one that aging veterans like Pierce and Garnett can no longer rescue on their own.
The Knicks haven't displayed their typical triple-digit production, but that hasn't mattered. Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith make tough shots; Pablo Prigioni hits bigs 3s; and Raymond Felton relentlessly attacks the basket while creating for himself and his teammates.
Boston seemed downright deflated when shots started falling for New York on Friday, almost like it was unsure it could respond. Unlike past years, the Celtics don't have an ability to dig deep within their veteran core and find a way to overcome adversity.
"You know, teams making shots and executing and playing very well, that can kill your spirit," said Garnett. "If you haven't been here and you haven't experienced playoff play and understand the whole thing, those are the times that you have to band together. You have to take some punches. We took them, but we didn't really give any back. I mean, when we messed up, they made us pay for it. Good teams are going to do that."
This is what the Celtics used to do to their opponents. They were the ones that made the big plays and waited for the opposition to wilt. Like the time they overwhelmed the Knicks and swept them out of the playoffs in 2011.
Now the roles have reversed.
Beset by injuries and simply overmatched in the postseason, the Celtics can no longer overcome adversity like they did even three months ago. And their season will meet an unceremonious end in the coming days because of it.