Commentary

New-look Celtics can't find rhythm

With Ray Allen heating up for rivals, new Boston lineup out of sync in loss

Originally Published: October 31, 2012
By Israel Gutierrez | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- There were traces of the familiar Boston Celtics on the AmericanAirlines Arena floor Tuesday night -- a few glimpses of what we've grown accustomed to seeing from this team since Kevin Garnett's arrival changed that franchise.

You saw it first, fittingly, with Ray Allen and Garnett and that entirely one-sided, ice-cold pregame greeting.

"I'm an intense person," Garnett said. "I'm just trying to play the game, man."

You saw it with Paul Pierce opening up the game with a couple of confident, deep, hope-you-enjoyed-that-ring-ceremony 3-pointers.

And you saw it when Rajon Rondo decided he wasn't granting the Heat anything, quarterbacking a comeback attempt, defending LeBron James full court, getting aggressive with officials and getting physical with Dwyane Wade.

Other than that, though, the current version of the Celtics was unrecognizable -- and not just because more than half of the nine-man rotation didn't play a single regular-season minute in Celtics green last season.

Boston allowed the Heat to shoot 54 percent from the floor and score 120 points. The Celtics allowed themselves to be merely participants in the Heat's banner-raising night instead of doing anything to ruin it.

But this isn't who the Celtics are. At least, this isn't who they will be.

This was a team getting crossed up by cross-matches rather than communicating properly. This was a team with no flow or movement offensively, despite what the 52 percent shooting and 107 on the box score tell you.

But this was nothing more than the first step in a lengthy adjustment to a roster full of new names.

The worst, if you will, of a revamped team with plenty of potential.

"It's funny, you shoot 52 percent and score 107 points, and I didn't think we were very good offensively at all," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I thought we had no continuity, offensively, and I thought that hurt us on the other end."

If you wanted an idea of just how out of sync this team is at the moment, there were two plays that were quite telling. The first came on Allen's first basket of the game, a corner 3-pointer.

You'd think any team as familiar with Allen's tendencies as Boston wouldn't allow Allen's first regular-season shot as a member of the rival Heat to be his favorite shot on the floor.

And yet there it was, Allen draining a 3 from right in front of the Heat's bench, not a Celtic to be found until it was too late.

"You'd think we would know better," Rivers said.

And there was that Heat fast break at the end of the second quarter when Paul Pierce and Garnett both drifted toward Allen in that same corner while leaving LeBron James to complete a trademark thunderous slam.

These are the Celtics, well, a few of them, anyway, that practically perfected the protect-the-paint, stop-the-break mentality -- so much so that they've set records for fewest offensive rebounds because it's not nearly as important to them as limiting easy baskets -- yet Garnett and Pierce combined to allow the easiest of the night.

It was so unlike them that Garnett pounded his own head after the play, knowing it never should have happened that way.

"We have to establish our identity, who we are, what we're going to be and make a decision on that for the season," Pierce said. "We've got to be a team that is the enforcer out there, and tonight we pretty much were on our heels the whole game."

It wasn't much different on the offensive end.

It used to be, back when Allen wore Celtics green, that as soon as he started running off screens, the beautiful basketball would begin.

One option after the next after the next would appear, with Rondo making the decisions and his scorers finishing off plays.

Tuesday night was more like a guessing game. Rondo, Rivers said, grew frustrated trying to run plays with second and third options in mind, only to find no one was executing properly.

And when Rivers tried to establish something inside with Garnett to start the second half, it went so poorly that Rivers called a timeout less than three minutes into the third quarter.

"I said, 'Listen, if he's not open, we're not going to just stick there. We've got to keep attacking,'" Rivers said.

And that's when the Celtics, even through what should be a turbulent first several weeks of the season, have a reliable option to lean on.

Rondo, throughout his night of frustrations that culminated in a late technical foul and flagrant on Wade, was still able to be a dominant figure.

Scoring may not be on top of Rondo's priority list, but he still has the ability to take over a game when proper execution just isn't happening.

Rondo finished with 20 points, 13 assists and 7 rebounds, with a late flurry of assists bringing the Celtics to within four in the final minutes.

The Celtics need someone to get them through the tough times. And in Rondo, they have someone more than capable.

"It just depends on the game flow," Rondo said. "At times, I may try to take over, but I'm a pass-first point guard and I don't want to force anything. Tonight, I don't think we were in a bad rhythm, obviously, because we scored 107 points. It was just, at times, our offense messed up our defense and it let them get out in transition, caused mismatches with cross matchups. We gave up 120 and that's something we can't do as Celtics."

The experiment will last a while. On Tuesday, Jared Sullinger lasted all of eight first-half minutes before he was shelved for good.

The small lineup went ultra-tiny late in the game with Rondo, Jason Terry and Leandro Barbosa on the floor at the same time.

And Jeff Green, the same Jeff Green who was excellent in preseason, was an invisible 0-for-4, which Rivers blames himself for.

That won't be the Celtics for very long. And this probably won't look like any other game this season between Boston and Miami. Not as long as Rondo is carrying the load and Garnett is directing defensive traffic.

The trick, of course, is not allowing too many losses to pile up during this awkward growth spurt.

"We should still win games," Rivers said. "It's going to take time, I said that before the season. But I didn't mean take time and losing games. I mean take time, win games, win them ugly at times."

Eventually, even without Allen, the beautiful basketball will return to Boston.

Israel Gutierrez is an NBA writer for ESPN.com.

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