Poor Boston Celtics.
As if it's not bad enough that Boston is mired in a season-worst six-game losing streak that has dropped the team three games below .500 with no magic elixir to cure its inconsistencies, the NBA schedule makers bestowed upon the staggering C's a national stage for Ray Allen's return to Boston with the Miami Heat on Sunday afternoon at TD Garden (1 p.m. ET, ABC).
Talk about terrible timing. The Celtics would probably be content to play this one in a barn on local access TV as they work through their worst struggles since Allen arrived in Boston. Instead, they'll be thrust into the national spotlight for an awkward reunion with a former teammate who reminds everyone of the overwhelming success the team enjoyed over the previous five seasons.
There's the lingering question of how Boston fans will receive Allen when he checks in for the first time. As gruff a bunch as Celtics fans can be, it'd be surprising if any initial boos don't give way to an appreciative roar. Boston fans can expect a tear-jerking trek down memory lane if Allen gets serenaded with the usual slow-motion-filled tribute video during the first timeout.
With the initial opening-night reunion in the rearview mirror -- you know, the one in which Kevin Garnett didn't even flinch when Allen attempted to dap him up on the bench early in the first quarter -- maybe sentimentality will win out. Heck, maybe Allen will even get the usual former-beloved-teammate invite into the Celtics' trainer's room before the game. As awkward a conversation as that could be:
Boston player: How are things going in Miami, Ray?
Allen: Well, you know, we've won four in a row, 28-12 overall, sitting comfortably atop the Eastern Conference, sending three guys to the All-Star Game -- no big deal. How about you guys?
Boston player: Ummm, errrrrr, well ... we had a six-game winning streak earlier this month, which was nice. KG's going to Houston next month even though he could really use a few days to rest those 36-year-old legs on a beach in Malibu. How's the weather down there in Miami?
Allen: 75 and sunny every day. Has it been cold up here lately?
Boston player: Get out. [Points at the locker-room door].
Allen is back on the Garden floor for the first time since LeBron James' Game 6 explosion during the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics unable to put the Heat away and stamp their pass to the NBA Finals.
No, the Heat won Games 6 and 7, then an NBA championship, then the Allen free-agency sweepstakes.
The Celtics? Well, they're just desperate for a win. So forgive Boston players if they're not exactly in the mood to talk about Allen's return.
"It is what it is at this point," said Celtics captain Paul Pierce with a shrug. "Fortunately, it's not a one-on-one bout, Ray against everybody. It's Boston Celtics versus Miami Heat, and that's how we look at it."
The Celtics have played some of their most inspired (but maybe not most consistent) ball against top-tier competition, and Pierce believes that -- as daunting as Sunday's game will be -- it has a high-reward factor if Boston can package together 48 minutes of consistent play.
"Being that we haven't been playing well, hopefully this could be something that gets us back on track with a big game on Sunday at home," he said.
Of course, you can't help but ponder the flip side. The Celtics are already reeling. What would happen if Allen buried some sort of game-winning 3-pointer against his former squad?
That's sort of the way the season has gone for Boston. While the Celtics' talent and potential is obvious, it hasn't translated into sustained strong play. Boston seemed to be turning the corner with a six-game winning streak earlier this month that coincided with the return of Avery Bradley -- the player who took Allen's spot in the starting lineup at the end of last season -- only to endure the current six-game losing streak.
It started with Doc Rivers' son, Austin, winning the family battle when New Orleans visited the Garden and continued with Boston making some boneheaded plays down the stretch to allow Chicago to escape with an overtime triumph.
After losing by 15 in Detroit, Rivers threatened roster changes for his team only for Boston to watch Kyrie Irving drop 40 points as the lowly Cavs emerged with a rare win two nights later. Boston put a more inspired effort together against the Knicks on Thursday, but late-game execution bit the Celtics again.
Friday's loss in Atlanta was an unmitigated disaster. Boston came flying out of the gates and opened a 27-point lead, but the starting unit couldn't kick it away fast enough. Even after building a second double-digit lead, the Celtics watched Kyle Korver shoot the Hawks into overtime, where they raced away for a 12-point triumph in the second extra session.
"It's why we are what we are," Rivers lamented after Friday's loss in Atlanta. "I see the talent in the locker room and we play a quarter and a half of perfect basketball, then we can't leave good enough alone. The ball stops moving on offense; on defense [we're] making up our own coverages, not getting back on defense. It's really frustrating, but like I've said, I've gotta keep pushing them."
Since his outburst in Detroit, Rivers has shifted more of the focus on himself, suggesting that he has to figure out how to get the most out of a team on which just about every player is underperforming.
"It's me. I've gotta figure out buttons for each individual," said Rivers. "Maybe we gotta coach each individual. We just gotta keep searching. I tell my coaches, 'We've got the right group. We just gotta act right.'"
For his part, Pierce has implored his teammates to stay positive.
"We're still a confident ballclub. There's no pointing fingers, and that's a start," he said. "Teams go through losing streaks and they start falling apart, pointing fingers, and that's something you don't see in this locker room. I think as long as we can continue to do that -- stay together, stay positive -- we can turn this thing around."
It starts Sunday with a visit from an old friend. As for a relationship gone sour, Boston has to put on a brave face as Allen has clearly rebounded better than they have. But Rivers often implores his team to get past mad, which is perfect advice for Sunday's game -- both with Allen and the team's current skid.
There's no sense remaining upset about Allen's departure. What's done is done. The Celtics might be best served to embrace him again then hope to get their revenge on the court.
Heck, a win like that might be the only way for Boston to salvage the Celtics' relationship with the 2012-13 season.