When Rajon Rondo decided to go toe-to-toe with notorious pretty boy Kris Humphries, it may have signaled the beginning of an era where Boston begins to respect their division rivals.
Make no mistake, this was no "bar fight" to be sure. Not a punch was thrown, though the "Happy Gilmore" Humphries pulled on Rondo was tragically amusing. The Celtics didn't come to play, pure and simple. In the macho world of NBA basketball, respect is earned through accomplishment. For years, the Nets have been Boston's whipping boy. No number of trades or fancy new Brooklyn digs is going to change a horse's colors in a basketball player's mind.
When Brooklyn won a narrow victory at home a few games ago, it was easy for Boston to shrug off the loss and say "wait til we see you at home, punks". There were plenty of plays in that game that Celtics' players could point to and maintain their stance that it was more about their mistakes than Brooklyn's execution....there's nowhere to hide in this one.
The Brooklyn Nets came into tonight's game with focus and a mind on establishing themselves as rival of relevance. The Celtics had no such plan. When Paul Pierce threw his dribble-drive pass to the official in the left corner, it summed up fairly well the attitude and mindset that his team brought into this game. The Celtics treated their opponent as the kid brother they'd bullied for years, and tonight "kid brother" had that moment that all younger siblings wait for. They took the listless Celtics squad to the woodshed and said "we are here and you damn well better come to play".
What this Means
This is by no means a sweeping indictment of this team or its prospects going forward. There are fundamental changes taking place within this team's personnel that are simply going to take time to manifest into results. Lost in this debacle is the silver lining of substantially improved defensive effort, particularly in the 2nd half. The Nets three point proficiency offset their lack of overall offensive effectiveness, which is a credit to the resolve Boston showed after being embarrassed in the first half.
There is little point rehashing these same arguments that have dominated Celtic-fandom since the start of the season. The law of averages and statistical probability dictate that the collection of players on this team will perform at their expected norms eventually. The memories of 2010 and 2012 are still too fresh for me to think otherwise...it's a process.
However, tonight's game embodies one facet of that process. For too long Boston had been able to exist in an insular world where they could pay no heed to their hapless division rivals. Their ability to solely focus inwardly and "only worry about themselves", as Doc Rivers has previously put it, was augmented by the paucity of their local competition. That time has passed.
It's one thing to give lip service, another to recognize with action when it comes to acknowledging competition. Boston is fully capable of remaining the top dog in the Atlantic Division. They should be one of the two best teams in the Eastern Conference when all is said and done. But tonight was a statement game and, hopefully, a seminal moment in the Celtics season. The focus and the fight the Celtics brought to this game absolutely will not cut it going forward. The team can't afford to treat every team outside of Miami and Oklahoma as science experiments along the road leading to the inevitable chemistry test of a deep playoff run. The world has changed and once hapless foes are standing up to be counted.
We'll see if this game serves as the proverbial "wakeup call" that triggers the consistency of effort and assertiveness that is necessary for the rest of the team growth process to fully take place....there is a thin line between "bar fight" and "beat down". This isn't the first time these Celtics have needed a reminder of that truth.