BOSTON -- Kevin Garnett emerged from the trainer's room with a protective boot over his left foot and Jason Terry followed soon after, frustration apparent after another lackluster individual effort during the Boston Celtics' 101-93 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night at TD Garden.
Paul Pierce had already cleared out, having lamented his team's lack of playoff-caliber focus, while inside the coach's quarters down the hall, Doc Rivers was pondering his top-secret rest plan for the final four games of the year.
To be certain, this is not how the Celtics wanted to arrive at the regular-season finish line. The visiting Nets dominated the Celtics for a third time this season, leading by as much as 19, en route to a breezy win that delivered Boston's ninth loss in 13 games.
While there's clearly plenty for the Celtics to work on -- and the tiny potential for some jockeying in the Eastern Conference seedings -- Boston would likely jump at the chance to push the fictional fast-forward button on the season remote, skipping these final coming attractions, and leaping to the featured film.
Sure, it'd be better if Garnett could find a rhythm; if Boston's new-look starting five could get some extended minutes together; if guys like Terry could snap out of their funk; or if the Celtics could be playing their best basketball of the year.
But little this season has gone to script, so why should it start now? Rivers said he'll do whatever must be done to safely navigate the final week of the 2012-13 campaign, which could include resting his veterans as early as Friday's visit to Miami (potentially turning a rivalry matchup into a bit of a jayvee game).
"Honestly, guys, I don't love doing this, I really don't enjoy it," Rivers said. "I think everybody should play every game. I really do. But it's not the team we have. With the ages of the [veterans] we have, you just can't take the chance. Hell, even [Wednesday vs. Brooklyn], honestly, when the [lead] got to 12 [points up in the fourth quarter], there was still eight minutes, [but] I was really thinking about getting our guys out now. Because I didn't feel great about the game the way it was being played, and you think, 'Get them off the floor now.' And it's no fun to think that way."
Rivers said he wouldn't overreact to Wednesday's loss, as disappointing as it was. Avery Bradley found himself in immediate and persistent foul trouble and Brooklyn point guard Deron Williams attacked, posting 29 points and 12 assists over 39 minutes.
The Nets embarked on a 15-3 run late in the first half to bust the game wide open and Boston never got closer than the final spread the rest of the way. The Celtics didn't attempt their first free throw until 8:22 of the third quarter, but Pierce couldn't individually will his team back into the game (despite 13 third-quarter points that saw him get to the charity stripe seven times in the frame).
"[The Nets] came in with a better sense of urgency, like the playoffs are right around the corner, and we sort of eased into it, and we can't do that with a week and a half left," Pierce said. "They came out with more purpose than us, you saw from the beginning to the end, and we've got to understand, we've got to raise our intensity at this point of the season. We've got to start prepping our mind, our mindset, our game plan, and everything we try to do for the playoffs, and, you know, it was a step back."
If not for the futility of the Milwaukee Bucks, who lost in overtime in Orlando on Wednesday to remain three games back, these Celtics might really be panicking in these final days of the regular season. Instead, the Bucks remain at arm's length with virtually no chance to leapfrog Boston down the stretch.
Garnett's boot was precautionary, the team knowing full well it can't afford any relapses with his health after he missed eight games over a two-week absence. But now Rivers must balance the need for Garnett to find his rhythm (he looked rushed at times Wednesday), with finding him some last-minute rest (Garnett said he's willing to do "whatever Doc wants me to do").
Rivers will have to think hard about resting his stars on the first night of a back-to-back on Friday in Miami. Regardless of who the Heat trot out, it might be safer to buy his vets a day off with their seventh-seeded fate seemingly sealed.
The Celtics desperately want to play Miami again, but they'd prefer to do that in late May, rather than early April.
"Honestly, we want to play Miami. We do," Rivers said. "We would just not like to play them early. We would love to avoid Miami in the first round, and then play them. That would mean, we're doing very well. Clearly we want to play Miami, we just want to delay it a little bit if we can."
Rivers said he'd sit down with his players to gauge their feelings about potential rest. He jokingly asked about the broadcast situation for Friday's game against Miami, hoping the league might spare both sides from fines if the stars were not present (for what it's worth, it's an NBA TV game).
Garnett does see value in these final tilts and hopes the Celtics utilize these matchups to at least ramp up a bit.
"I think we're focusing too much on the playoffs that are not here yet," Garnett said. "I think we need to focus and lock in on these games that we have left and put the energy and the effort behind that. I think we're stressing on the future and the future is not here yet. We need to take this one game at a time and then start to prepare for whatever is after this."