In case anyone noticed or cared, the Celtics lost again tonight at the TD Garden, 101-93 to the Brooklyn Nets, their ninth loss in 13 contests. If your mind was elsewhere, it's hard to blame you -- the Celtics' were too.
This game never really felt in doubt. The Celtics started strong, building an early lead on a barrage of 3-pointers from Paul Pierce and Jeff Green, but a 13-2 Nets run toward the end of the first quarter buried the C's, who never mounted the resolve to fight back. They lacked the effort to rotate on defense and keep Deron Williams and Joe Johnson from finding open looks; they also lacked the aggression to attack the basket on offense, as evidenced by their zero free throw attempts in the first half.
They may also have lacked the mental wherewithal to care.
Which isn't to say the Celtics have lost interest in this season -- far from it. But it doesn't look like their focus is on the game at hand anymore.
"It felt like that tonight," coach Doc Rivers admitted after the loss. "I told our team that I really felt like we'd been talking too much about stuff, and not enough about Brooklyn. That was on me. I told them that after the game."
With four games left in the regular season, we've reached a crucial turning point. The postseason is about a week and a half away, and it's unclear how the Celtics plan to prepare for it. Do they relax before the playoffs, focusing on rest and health, disregarding wins and losses between now and next weekend? Or do they kick their effort up a notch, readying themselves for the high-octane style of April basketball?
Pierce has one answer.
"We've got to raise our intensity at this point of the season," the captain said. "We've got to start prepping our mindset, our game plan, everything we try to do for the playoffs. This was a step back."
The Brooklyn loss was certainly a step back. If finding a playoff rhythm is the goal, then this game accomplished nothing. Green and Brandon Bass, the supporting players around the recently returned Kevin Garnett, did little to establish their new roles; Avery Bradley spent more time battling foul trouble than guarding Deron Williams; and oh, yeah, the bench gave them pretty much nothing.
If the Celtics are going to figure out their postseason identity, they need to start by playing well these last four games before playoff time.
"I think we're focusing too much on the playoffs that aren't here yet," Garnett said. "I think we need to focus and lock in on these games that we have left, putting our energy and effort behind that. I think we're stressing too much on the future, and the future's not here yet. We need to take this one game at a time, then start to prepare for whatever's after this."
Or... there's the other option. They can rest guys.
As luck would have it, the Celtics' last four games are two back-to-backs. They play on the road against Miami and Orlando this Friday and Saturday, then home against Indiana and at Toronto on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week. It's a mix of two hard games and two very winnable ones. What's the strategy here -- do they go all out to win the easy ones, and punt the losses to East titans? Or on the flip side, do they ease up against the doormats, and make their push to beat the Heat and Pacers?
Pierce isn't touching that question with a 10-foot pole.
"I'm going to leave that up to the coaches," he said. "I think practice time is good for us; I think playing together is good for us. But you know, that's up to the coaching staff and what they see, best preparing us for going forward into the playoffs."
In any event, the Celtics don't have much time to figure everything out. Four games is four games. In the grand scheme of the long NBA slog, it's the blink of an eye.
Will four games be enough?
"We're going to find out," said an ominous Garnett.
Indeed we are. And soon.