BOSTON -- How many times has this played out over the years when the Boston Celtics play the New York Knicks? Paul Pierce with the ball, down three with a few seconds left on the clock. Time and again, it's been Pierce who drove a stake right through the Knicks' hearts and then gleefully showed them the bloody remains.
Everyone knew what was supposed to happen next, and then he inexplicably dribbled the ball off his foot out of bounds. Pierce stared in disbelief. The Garden, which had been rocking at playoff levels throughout the fourth quarter, fell silent. The Celtics were so stunned they forgot to foul and let the Knicks run the clock down to zeroes and escape with an 89-86 victory.
In the moment it was a thrilling bare-knuckle contest that thankfully was low on histrionics, but the aftermath was trickier to discern. The result allowed us to ponder the existential sports question: was it a better win or a worse loss? Both sides have a case.
The last time New York won here was in 2006. Eddy Curry started at center and Steve Francis scored 22 points. This time it was Carmelo Anthony scoring 28 -- a very tough 28 on 28 shots as it turned out, but 28 nonetheless -- and J.R. Smith nailing a huge three-pointer despite missing 13 of his previous 15 attempts, as if that was going to stop him.
"The history yeah, absolutely," Tyson Chandler said. "This was a big game for us. We feel like this is a great year for us. We have the potential to do some special things. In order to do those special things we have to put ourselves in the right position."
The Knicks had lost four of six and watched as their once-sizeable lead in the Atlantic Division dwindled to a handful of games over the suddenly resurgent Nets. So yeah, this was a big game for New York.
Despite all that it was hard to escape the conclusion that this was more troubling for the Celtics because it actually represented progress. For the first time in weeks, they attacked instead of settling for jumpers. The defense was on point. The rebounding was sharp. A handful of bewildering Rajon Rondo blunders aside, they took care of the ball.
"If I saw that effort every night I'd be very happy," Doc Rivers said.
If the Celtics played this way every night they wouldn't be sitting here in this predicament, but they don't and here we are. They have had one solid stretch of basketball where they won six straight and they followed that up with five straight losses and counting.
Strip away the past accomplishments and focus on the here and now and we're left with the inescapable conclusion that the Celtics simply are not very good. Halfway through the season they are two games under .500 and even in the Eastern Conference all that gets you is a hanging-on-for-dear-life eighth seed, seven full games behind the Knicks. If they were in the West they'd be the Timberwolves, but without injuries to use as an excuse.
It's not hard to pinpoint the exact nature of the their not-very-goodness, which is an offense that averages 102.1 points per 100 possessions and ranks No. 27 in the league, just behind the Bobcats. Add that to a defense that is still awesome on occasion but no longer dominant and prone to getting shredded by young, elite players. (See: Irving, Kyrie.)
The Celtics believe their defensive issues are related to effort, which doesn't make them any less troubling, especially considering Rivers has tried out every motivational tactic in the coach's playbook. He's called them soft, questioned their professionalism and recently suggested there would be changes if they didn't snap out of it. Of course, Doc doesn't have that kind of power and team president Danny Ainge had to walk back those comments to various outlets around town.
"Didn't you see me the other night?" Rivers responded when someone asked is he was frustrated. "It's frustrating to lose when you give effort, because you've got to keep convincing your guys if you play that way every night, you're going to make more shots than that. And you're going to win a lot of games. But right now, they're sitting there thinking, ‘We lost.' So, they know it. They know with that effort you're going to win most nights."
None of Doc's appeals have worked, which has further led to questions about the locker room and whether the coach has "lost the team," which implies they ever fully bought into what he was selling. Despite the presence of Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo this isn't the Celtics of old. There are seven new players and the second unit has been completely overhauled. Short of sneaking into practices and meetings it's impossible to know really, but losing tends to bring out the worst in everyone and right now the Celtics are surrounded by innuendo and vague finger-pointing.
Unlike past years they didn't have a 23-5 stretch to open the season, which helped mask their deficiencies in the standings. They didn't have one of those last season either, but that was easily blamed on the lockout and they justified the reprieve by going 24-10 in the second half of the season. This particular Celtics team has no cushion. The maddening thing is that they are unquestionably more talented than last year's version, but they too often play like they just met for a pickup game at the Y.
All of that masks the real issue, or put it in plain terms: It's still the offense, stupid.
The Celtics live and die with perimeter jump shots. They take about 22 long jumpers per game and make them about 44 percent of the time. That's really good, actually, but it's not enough to compensate for a lackluster interior game, not enough trips to the free throw line and too many turnovers.
This is nothing new. They've been treading water offensively since the 2009-10 season. It's not a coincidence that Ainge has been faced with the same perplexing dilemma year after year, which is whether to break off the aging pieces of his team in order to accelerate a rebuilding process that has no obvious conclusion, or ride it out yet again and hope they get their act together around April.
In the short term, the Celtics are stuck. They are right up against the hard cap and it's not as if there's anybody waiting by the phone who could actually help. Their trade options aren't strong either.
Their secondary players -- Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee and Jason Terry -- are on reasonably affordable contracts but they have all had disappointing seasons. Their young players -- Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger -- might tempt someone, but giving up on the future for a short-term gain with a team that may have run its course does not seem wise. Jeff Green has no trade value.
Realistically, BLOWING IT UP means trading Pierce, who has a cap-friendly buyout in the final year of his contract. But that scenario is treacherous. While it's been rumored many times over the years, trading Pierce would be a dramatic move for a franchise that always valued his loyalty and would potentially place Garnett in an uncomfortable position of leading a team with no realistic chance at contending, which is not what he signed up for.
These are questions they don't want to answer and so Ainge waits again to see if they can be salvaged. We've been down this road many times before with the Celtics and always the mid-season laments look overblown come spring. As they stare into the abyss once more it's on them to save themselves.
They played hard on Thursday. That this was notable is far more damning than the loss.