BOSTON -- Jeff Green is playing some of the most inspired and consistent basketball of his career. Now, if only he could enjoy it.
"I want to win. I don't care how I play, I just want to win," said a frustrated Green, who scored a game-high 28 points but watched the New York Knicks snap a 10-game losing streak with a 101-95 triumph over the Boston Celtics on Friday night at TD Garden.
Green did his part, especially late in the fourth quarter when he almost single-handedly willed Boston back into the game despite trailing by as many as 15 in the final frame. Beyond the play of Green and Tyler Zeller (19 points, 6 rebounds), little else went well for Boston on this night.
Slumping Jared Sullinger went scoreless for the first time since suffering the back injury that ended his rookie season in January 2013; Rajon Rondo took only three shots despite a recent pledge to be more aggressive; rookie Marcus Smart strained his left Achilles and left early in the second quarter; and Avery Bradley sat out due to illness.
But even with all that working against the Celtics, they probably still shouldn't have lost to a disheveled Knicks team that endured a week of reports about their in-fighting.
Instead, it was Rondo lamenting, "It's tough to say what the problem is, as far as bringing it like we're supposed to. They played like they lost 10 straight and we played like we had won 10 straight. We just have to find our way."
The seven-win Celtics, as Rondo would later acknowledge, have absolutely no reason to play like a team that has won 10 straight. The team entered the week riding the high of a season-best three-game winning streak and was staring at the sort of friendly schedule that could have allowed the team to make some headway after a brutal November slate.
Instead, the Celtics suffered consecutive losses to two teams that had recently endured 10-game losing streaks in Charlotte and New York (in fact, the Hornets snapped their 10-game losing streak by edging the Knicks on a buzzer-beater last Friday).
Before tipoff on Friday, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was asked if he was worried his team might look past New York if Carmelo Anthony didn't play. "We're not good enough to do that with anybody. I think our guys know that."
Anthony played, scoring a team-high 22 points, but Boston still didn't bring its A-game (or its B-game). The Knicks played with the desperation that Boston impossibly lacked.
"[The Knicks] were clearly playing very urgent tonight," said Stevens. "That was great, for them. We have to play that way. In basketball, at this level or any level, the minute you feel sorry for yourself it's going to snowball on you. You have to earn things, you have to go out and do them, and the next one is an opportunity and we have to seize that. But if we don't play well, we won't."
And the Celtics most certainly didn't play well Friday. One day after suggesting he's unfazed by the criticism he's received as part of Boston's struggles, Rondo put up only three shots (making one) while finishing with 2 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds and 2 turnovers over 32 minutes. He was minus-11 in plus/minus.
Rondo suggested that the Knicks' offense took away some of his aggressiveness by making shots (New York shot nearly 50 percent overall from the floor). But after playing some of his best games of the season recently when his shot totals skyrocketed (attempting 17 shots against both the Lakers and Wizards in recent wins), Rondo seemed content to simply be a facilitator on a night Boston needed a boost.
"When I’m most aggressive is when we get stops, defensively," said Rondo. "I think the last time I shot 17, back-to-back against Lakers and Washington, those games in particular we were able to get stops in the first half, especially."
The Celtics had a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 109.5 while Rondo was on the court Friday (and that was still 1.6 points better than the team's average for the game). But Boston's offensive rating with Rondo was a cringeworthy 88.1 (well below the game average of 96). The Celtics' pace, tops in the league for the month of December, plummeted in Friday's game.
It goes back to the idea of fighting through adversity. When things come easy for these Celtics, they play well. Stops on the defensive end typically translate to quality opportunities in transition and Boston has made a habit of building early leads. But the Celtics came out flat on Friday and just sorta shrugged as the Knicks fended off their occasional charges.
Sullinger missed all six shots he took over 21 minutes and didn't stick around to voice his individual frustration. Stevens pledged that his team would rally behind Sullinger, but noted how Boston is "a team that needs every basket we can get, whether that's one person or two people or three people, we need to all play well to win."
The Celtics have routinely voiced frustration after losses, but rarely play with the sort of desperation to change those outcomes. Some will look at the Celtics' schedule that takes them to Philadelphia on Monday and think, "Automatic win." Well, nothing is automatic with this team.
But the Celtics do need a win again. And they can't just show up at the Wells Fargo Center expecting it.
"I'll do anything to win," said Green. "I know we have the pieces to win. Just gotta go out and find a way."
The Celtics have to play as desperate as they sound.