David Richard/USA TODAY Sports
Rajon Rondo and the Celtics could use a pick-me-up.So Jared Sullinger looked pretty good, eh?
What? You're not in the mood for silver linings? You're still mad? You just want to blow this thing up? Well, hang in there.
The Boston Celtics reached the midpoint of the 2012-13 season by losing their season-high fourth straight to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena, Boston (20-21) dipping a game below .500 with a grueling three-game stretch looming against a trio of Eastern Conference playoff foes in the Knicks, Hawks and Heat.
Challenged by their coach, the Celtics responded with better energy than they displayed during Sunday's lopsided loss in Detroit, but the consistency that Doc Rivers so desperately craves was still missing. Boston couldn't sustain an early offensive outburst, but, more importantly, couldn't contain Kyrie Irving at any point as Cleveland's All-Star-worthy point guard put up 40 points on 16-of-24 shooting, routinely blowing past Rajon Rondo and Boston's other perimeter defenders while finishing in traffic (half his field goals came near the rim).
Irving inserted the dagger with 52 seconds remaining in a one-possession game when he waltzed past Rondo and muscled in a layup after drawing contact from Sullinger (the rookie was looking for a charge, but -- surprise, surprise -- didn't get the whistle).
As Rivers lamented, "I thought we played in stretches. And, then in the fourth quarter, we didn't get much better offensively and Kyrie Irving happened."
The Celtics shot 38.1 percent overall and just 21.7 percent in the fourth quarter, missing 18 of 23 shots they put up. Irving alone had more field goals in the final frame (six) than Boston and he nearly matched the team's total scoring output (Boston 17, Irving 15).
Listen, it's hard to sugarcoat this one. The Celtics lost to a team that entered the night tied with Charlotte for the second-worst record in the East. Cleveland is one of the least efficient teams -- both offensively and defensively -- in the league, was playing without its heart and soul (Anderson Varejao) and made a trade Tuesday that left them a bit shorthanded.
It hardly mattered. Even after Rivers implored his team to play with more fire, the Celtics watched Irving get hot early against Rondo (making his first five shots against Boston's own All-Star point guard) and the Cavaliers were up seven less than five minutes in. Boston recovered, but Cleveland posted a 31-point first frame and did enough to stick around when Boston's defense clamped down in the middle quarters.
"We're just not there for 48 minutes," Rivers sighed. "Today was better than Detroit. I guess that's the positive."
No really, there were positives; the negatives simply overshadowed them. Sullinger posted a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds, but he fouled out trying to take the late charge from Irving, a call preventing Boston from a potential chance to tie the game. Rondo flirted with another triple-double (team-highs of 17 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists), but his inability to slow down Irving diminished his contributions (Rondo was a team-worst minus-10 in plus/minus on Tuesday).
So where do the Celtics go from here? While a vocal majority will continue to scream and shout for a roster shakeup, it's hard to imagine Boston's brass not giving this team every chance to prove it can figure things out. The Celtics often save their most inspired play for top-caliber opponents, so this upcoming stretch should bring out the best in them.
If it doesn't, and Rivers' challenge from Sunday night truly falls on deaf ears, then changes almost certainly have to be made. For now, Celtics fans must be content to keep calm and keep the Trade Machine on.
"As a coach, you've just got to keep pushing," Rivers said.
These recent struggles mask the potential Boston showed during its six-game winning streak earlier this month. Go ahead and scream for change, but that remains the worst-case scenario for a Celtics team that seemingly just needed more consistent contributions from its top rotation players. Paul Pierce missed 12 of 15 shots on Tuesday; Kevin Garnett took just five shots in the second half; Rondo missed 10 of 17 shots.
The Celtics got burnt by a red-hot opponent. Their quest to turn things around detoured by a second-year player who has saved some of his most inspired ball for Boston. It's only natural to emerge frustrated from Tuesday's game. But this truly wasn't as bad as Detroit. Garnett said after the game the Celtics will try to pluck the positives out.
There won't be a lot, but, hey, did we mention that Sullinger looked pretty good?