The last time the Celtics encountered this Philadelphia 76ers team, a trip to the Eastern Conference finals was on the line. It was a Game 7 on the TD Garden floor, and the C's brought a Game 7 level of urgency to match. They ran the floor, they wrestled for every loose ball, and they made every decision knowing it might be their last.
Needless to say, they didn't bring the same sense of desperation to the rematch five-plus months later.
The Celtics let up a 17-5 run in the first quarter on Friday night at the Garden, and Philly's young, explosive backcourt duo of Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner sliced them and diced them en route to a double-digit lead at the half. The C's tried playing catch-up after the break, but their efforts were too little, too late.
"Every time we needed a stop tonight, we didn't get it," coach Doc Rivers lamented. "Every big time down the floor that we'd cut it down to four or to six, they scored. They were scoring on a lot of rolls, a lot of secondary stuff where we were supposed to be there, and we were not."
The Celtics' loss, a 106-100 final, dropped them to 2-3 on the season, with their only wins coming over a hapless Washington Wizards team (and even those were too close for comfort). The C's aren't playing with intensity, they aren't showing the defensive effort that's been their calling card for five years, and they aren't getting much of anything from their supposedly deep bench. In short, they aren't doing much of anything right. The frustration is building.
"It's already there," Courtney Lee said. "Nobody is happy about where we're at right now, or about this loss tonight. The frustration is definitely there."
Kevin Garnett was typical Kevin Garnett tonight for the Celtics, contributing 19 points and 10 rebounds in addition to his usual staunch defensive effort. Paul Pierce (24 points) and Rajon Rondo (14, with 20 assists) weren't bad either. But the complete team effort outside of the big three stars was sorely lacking. The C's aren't gelling. At the moment, they're nothing more than the sum of their parts.
"Right now, we have indecision," Garnett said. "At points, we have a lack of communication. And all the other things that come with an NBA basketball game -- you know, you're going to make some mistakes, you're going to be a bit tentative at times. I thought we made some progress tonight in some areas, but collectively, we all have to do it together."
The Celtics have tinkered with different solutions, tweaking their lineups to shuffle Brandon Bass, Jason Terry, Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green and Leandro Barbosa in and out of their starting and closing lineups. But this is about more than lineup cards for the Celtics. Their problems run deeper.
"It's the whole game that matters," Rivers said. "I don't think who starts matters. The thing that's hurting us right now is when Kevin goes off the floor. That happened again tonight. If you want to focus on something right now, that's what you should focus on. What are we going to do when Kevin goes off the floor in the first half? Because every time we do it, and we have to do it, we're struggling.
"And that's on me. I've got to figure that out. Because he's not [always] going to be on the floor. He's coming out. He's coming out at an exact time, and we have to figure out something to make us click. And I think that's on both ends. It's not just our defense goes down. I think our offense really struggles when he goes out, and we really have to do something about it."
The Celtics retooled in a big way this offseason, bringing in a half-dozen fresh new faces to make them deeper and more versatile than ever. But so far, nothing's working.
"These are the hard days," Garnett said. "No one said this thing was going to be easy."