The 2008 Championship season was equal parts fantasy, tearjerker, and morality play. The long drought, the assemblage of aging greats whose careers had been spent carrying mediocre or bad teams, the resurgence of unselfish team play that was long a Celtic staple but was lost in the dark ages--these were the elements that captured the imagination and rewarded the long-suffering faithful. If you were unmoved by such a confluence of events then you have a stone heart and are no fan of the Celtics, or even basketball. Even non-believers were driven to grudging admiration at the way this team scythed through the opposition with such basic basketball fundamentals executed to perfection by focused, driven practitioners.
Fast forward through the next one and a half seasons of injuries and diminishing skills that left the hearty champions a mere shell of their dominant selves, only able to provide glimpses of the lightening in a bottle that marked the banner year. The insidious thief that is time slowly nibbled at the edges until duck-boat denizens were part-timers--partially healthy, part of the time, and able to do only part of what they formerly executed as a matter of course. The injuries became more frequent, the rehab longer, the recovery less complete; and these valiant warriors were slowly hobbled into submission.
The cognitive part of our awareness recognized the inevitable decline but the emotional attachment fiercely denied the increasingly obvious. The brain had to concede that the team could still be devastating when available, healthy, and in tune; but it also knew, sadly, that the spells of complete health and functionality were fewer, shorter, and more fragile. The heart suffered in anguish as the conquering warriors were being reduced to walking wounded who moved slower, lower, and with less precision. We want it to work, almost as badly as we wanted the dramatic turnaround the Big Three's arrival brought in 2008. We want it, but more and more we recognize that the odds grow prohibitively long that the train can avoid breaking down and being derailed. At some point we are just left whistling in the dark.
In spite of the realities of the writing on the wall, too much has been made of the "full complement" of the roster in the Sunday collapse. The Celtics were hardly at full strength. Garnett is maybe 80%, Pierce was even less. Daniels, while he performed exceedingly well, has months of rust and inactivity yet to knock off. Glen Davis is just starting to round (sorry, inadvertent pun) into game shape and recover his jump shot. Sheed has quick hands but slow feet, and maybe a slow mind for defensive rotations--how much due to middle age and how much due to sub-par conditioning is open to dispute. Still it is fair to ask, what is the likelihood that these flaws will be remedied, or that more cracks in the foundation won't appear to continue the decay?
Perhaps more troubling is the across-the-board response to the ongoing problems. Ubuntu has been lost in the individual efforts to single-handedly repair the facade. It used to be a rare occurrence that the ball stayed in any one player's hands for more than a couple of seconds. In recent weeks it is a common sight to see one-on-one play extending through half a dozen dribbles and resulting in a contested shot, turnover, or shot clock violation. Defensive rotations are slow, flat-out missed, or fall further and further behind until the C's give up easy shots or lay ups. The extra effort of boxing out or even checking on the bounce of a missed shot have given way to the leisurely retreat down court--Hey, I got back on defense! Sad when that becomes the easy way out. There has been a lot of saying "We've got to do better." Actually doing so, not so much. Once again lip service in lieu of effort.
This team has been so easy to like. As it slips away they are in danger of losing that, or even liking themselves.