Celtics' loss leads to what-if questions

BOSTON -- It was a situation that Tony Allen had seen plenty of times before, just never from this angle. As Boston Celtics captain Paul Pierce prepared to hoist a desperation 3-pointer, hoping to force overtime Wednesday night, Allen -- Boston's former so-called "defensive stopper" -- shaded over to help teammate Shane Battier. Pierce's shot slammed off the front of the rim, sealing a 90-87 triumph for the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night, and Allen exulted with what seemed like an offseason worth of frustration as he screamed inches from the captain's face while wildly pumping his fist in celebration.

What if the Celtics still had Tony Allen?

It's a question that's certainly crossed Doc Rivers' mind. Not now, mind you. What's done is done, and Rivers says he doesn't have time to play the what-if game at this point of the season. In fact, Rivers doesn't have enough time to fix the real problems facing the Celtics, let alone the fictional ones.

But you can't help but wonder: If the Celtics still had Allen, would they have been so desperate for swingman depth that they would deal away Kendrick Perkins at the trade deadline?

And if the Celtics hadn't sent Perkins packing, would they be scuttling quite as much as they are right now? Would Boston have lost five of its past nine games and suddenly be chasing the Chicago Bulls in the race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference?

"You can play that game all you want," Rivers said with a smile. "I'll leave it alone."

But let's play the game. The Celtics were spurned by Allen, who has hinted he felt like a secondary target for Boston and was wooed by the full-on attention Memphis general manager Chris Wallace -- the man who drafted Allen -- showed him at the start of free agency. Allen ultimately took similar money to take his talents to Beale Street.

That left Pierce openly pleading with Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to bring in additional depth at the wing, and with a thin free-agent market, Boston scrambled to re-sign Marquis Daniels.

Daniels suffered that scary, season-ending spine injury in early February, and Boston's season got turned on its head. After months of saying he'd like to stick with the roster Boston had brought out of training camp, Ainge was instead left hastily remodeling the roster at the end of February.

Exactly one month after the deadline, Boston is still trying to figure out how all the new pieces work. Making matters worse, it watched Wednesday night as another old friend, Leon Powe, chipped in 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting over 17 minutes to spark Memphis' bench effort.

The Grizzlies outscored Boston's bench 38-29. Rivers admitted the Celtics explored the idea of bringing back Powe, who was bought out by Cleveland, before pushing hard to haul in Troy Murphy. The same Troy Murphy who logged four rather forgettable minutes Wednesday; the only column void of a zero in his box score was the two in the turnover column (including one head-slapping, up-and-down call).

Murphy boasts 25 points in 11 games with Boston; Powe has registered 47 points in six games with Memphis. What if the Celtics had signed Leon Powe instead of Troy Murphy?

Like Rivers, Powe politely declined to play that game as well. He didn't want to offend his old team, one that certainly had enough injury woes that it couldn't roll the dice on his balky knees. But maybe the Grizzlies don't dominate the points in the paint category 52-26 on Wednesday if Powe is holding the fort for the injured O'Neals.

In the aftermath of his deadline dealings, Ainge was asked whether Boston would have been so inclined to make moves had Daniels not suffered the spinal injury.

There was a 6-second pause before Ainge's answer, which spoke volumes.

In the end, one can drive himself mad trying to imagine all the potential what-if scenarios. Ultimately, it's not about who the Celtics could have had or what they could have done. It's about who they do have and what they will do.

Boston is struggling right now, and it's almost certainly due in some small part to the chemistry disruption. But there's only one option now: Figure it out.

The playoffs start in roughly 22 days. What if Boston doesn't put it together by then? It's not a question that even crosses Kevin Garnett's mind.

"The urgency has to be there and it has to be there as a group," Garnett said. "We've got guys learning on the fly, and it's not easy, it's not easy. Especially when you're trying to get stops, to be in a defensive rhythm, and that translates over to good offense.

"It's difficult, but if anybody can handle it, we can."

Echoed Pierce: "Everybody's just got to be mentally prepared and understand what's at stake."

What's at stake is a chance at the top seed in the East, something that will make the playoff path that much easier to navigate. What's at stake is a chance to atone for letting Banner 18 slip away last June.

Boston's problems are fixable. Slow starts and shooting woes have cropped up only recently, and the Celtics know they need to get back to what made them so successful earlier in the season.

Games like Wednesday's loss to the Grizzlies are maddening for the team (and fans alike) because these are the sort of contests that Boston should win. Losses have only the potential to make April, May and June a little tougher to navigate.

And the Celtics most certainly don't want to be playing a game of what-if again this summer.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.