BOSTON -- There were still 96 seconds left and just seven points separating the Celtics and Grizzlies when the Garden faithful began departing in droves. The hometown team had done little to inspire confidence that a comeback was imminent, but even still, the feeling of resigned defeat hung heavily in the air. Memphis tried to give it back. The Grizzlies had a 17-point lead before inexplicably going into an offensive shell in the fourth quarter, but the Celtics couldn't find enough scoring in a 93-83 loss.
This was Avery Bradley's comeback game and whatever pregame hope and hype that surrounded the 22-year-old was already long gone. Bradley did fine. He played 20 minutes and, while his timing was off as expected, he at least gave Doc Rivers some balance in his backcourt rotation. Before the game, I asked the coach if he considered bringing Bradley off the bench and integrating him more slowly into the process.
"Nah," Rivers said quickly. "He's ready. His legs have been fine. He'll still be going too fast and he'll make his mistakes. I just think the quicker we get to our lineup, the better. We're going to get to it anyway, so why wait?"
Why wait, indeed. The C's have been getting torched lately, losers of eight out of their last 10 including a brutal West Coast trip that saw them get beat by an average of 23 points per night. Add that to double-digit losses to Houston, San Antonio and Chicago right when the team thought it was about to hit its stride, and what you have in Boston is deep-seated concern that this season of so much expectation will be a dud.
Not panic, mind you. The people here have seen enough to know better, but they also know that at some point this is all going to be over and when it really, truly happens, it will be final. This is the tightrope they walk and everyone knows it.
Paul Pierce has still been able to score, but when he puts it on the floor and attacks the basket he can't seem to summon the explosive finishing ability he's always been able to conjure when he needs it most.
Kevin Garnett has been struggling with his shot lately and Rajon Rondo has been ineffective while he plays through a bruised right hip. Even before the injury Rondo's play was beginning to slide. That may have been acceptable once upon a time, but times have changed. They need Rondo to be great almost every night just to be able to score effectively.
The Celtics won't be going anywhere this spring if their three stars aren't playing at a high level, but the old guard hasn't really been the problem this season. The role players -- specifically Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, Jason Terry and Courtney Lee -- have all ranged from sub-par to disappointing and Rivers is running out of options up front where he's resorted to starting Jason Collins, he of the 13 points and 39 fouls in 170 minutes.
This has more to do with keeping Garnett fresh, both mentally and physically, than any strategic thinking. The lineup has been brutal, getting outscored by more than eight points per 100 possessions. By staying with Collins for KG's long-term benefit, Rivers is proving the point that taking care of his most important player is more important than wins and losses in December and January. Considering the way Garnett has responded the last few years, it's tough to argue with the way Rivers has maintained his big man.
"I've never known those guys to be worried about the early part of the season," former Celtic Tony Allen said. "I think they're trying to iron it out until it's time to make the playoffs and that's when they make their run. That's how it was when I was here. Like they always say, they're a work in progress. They're going to get back to it."
At some point, however, the Celtics are actually going to have start winning some games and that likely means going back to Bass or giving rookie Jared Sullinger a shot with the starters. They've slid behind Brooklyn and Philly in their division and currently sit three games under .500 and in ninth place in the East. Of course, they are also less than four games away from fifth. Such is the nature of the relentlessly mediocre conference.
Bradley will help. He'll take pressure off Rondo to guard the ball and also allow Terry and Lee to come off the bench, which was the plan all along.
"He's a big addition to what we do," Garnett said. "Avery coming back starts the rebuilding process of trying to fix what we have broke here. Getting back to being defensively sound and being the team that we know we can be. As you can see it doesn't just happen. There's no excuses. We're just going to come in here and try to grind this thing out."
But Bradley alone won't solve their problems. Rivers took a long time coming into the post-game media session. He had already called his team out this season, but this time Doc played it close to the vest. His message?
"Just keep playing, you know?" he said. "I told them whatever we're doing wrong, it's not going to get fixed in a day."