The Boston Celtics are running out of time, and head coach Doc Rivers knows it.
Though the team appeared to have hit rock bottom after losing four straight, the Celtics rebounded with a six-game winning streak, four victories of which came against potentially playoff-bound teams.
For a faction like the Celtics, clad with a payroll exceeding $76 million, the time to act on such transgressions is now, not later, hence Rivers' frustrations.
Following Boston's listless 15-point loss to the Pistons, Rivers sugarcoated nothing about the recent performance of his team (via Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com):
I think this team wants everything easy. They want the easy way out. They want to win easy. And I told them the only way you’re going to win easy is you're going to have to play hard. The harder you play, the easier the games become. We’re taking the wrong approach. I've got to either find the right combination, the right guys, or we’re going to get some guys out of here. It’s the bottom line. Because this group right now, they are not playing right. It’s in them to play right. But right now they haven't been -- either because I’m not getting to them, or they are not getting to each other. But at the end of the day, either we've got to do that, or we've got to make changes.
Prior to such bold sentiments, Rivers didn't hesitate to classify his team as "awful" and even picked apart their effort during that six-game winning streak. So yeah, he's serious.
But is he right?
We all know that Boston attempted to position itself with the necessary flexibility to pull the trigger on a trade if it needed to. We also know that during the winning streak, Danny Ainge publicly acknowledged that he was content with the roster. And now we know that Rivers isn't following in the footsteps of Ainge.
Though we can't blame the Celtics head coach for being disgruntled, is this really the time to blow up a combine that came within one victory of an NBA Finals appearance last season? Halfway through the year, is it already time for Boston to abandon its current schematic?
Ray Allen is gone, but the footprints of last year's team remain, and as Zach Lowe of ESPN's Grantland noted, it's a long season.
Celtics went from "in crisis" to "looking great!" to "in crisis" in about 2 weeks, for those keeping track. Reminder: It's a LONG season.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) January 21, 2013
Yet for the Celtics, it's not long enough. Not this time.
Only last season, Boston began the year 17-17 before finishing out 22-10 to claim a top-four finish in the Eastern Conference. From there, the team battled its way through the playoffs and nearly claimed a finals berth. Currently at 20-20, the stage is set for the Celtics to do much of the same now as well.
Except it's not.
This version of the Celtics does not possess that same will, that same drive to win and turn things around. Not according to Rivers.
Boston is supposed to pride itself on defense, and while it remains in the top eight of points allowed per 100 possessions, it has allowed 100 or more points to two bottom-half-ranked offenses in each of its last two games.
The team's own offense has only added to its troubles. Scoring at a rate of just 102.2 points per 100 possessions, the Celtics rank 27th in offensive efficiency. They're also ranked 20th in possessions per 48 minutes (91.2). Given that Boston houses the league-leading assists man in Rajon Rondo (11.1 a night), that's disturbing.
As is this convocation's general effort.
You see, Rivers isn't alone in his assessment of the Celtics' absence of will. He isn't the only one in Boston's locker room who sees lethargy spreading like wildfire.
Immediately following the Pistons' trouncing of the boys in green, Rondo (via A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com) voiced his displeasure with the apathetic demeanor currently plaguing the aggregation as a whole:
For me, it's too laxed; our locker room is too laxed. Even though a lot of guys' personalities are laid back. But we all got to this level by competing. And right now, the talent we have, the record is embarrassing. Until guys get sick and fed with it, I don't know if things are going to change. We still have to go out there and play the game.
Referring to the Celtics' record as "embarrassing" only begins to tell this tale of severe underachieving.
This squad was supposed to be better than last year's. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rondo were supposed to anchor a team that would be the Miami Heat's greatest pitfall. Instead, they've become more of a pushover.
Worse than that, Boston has become a pushover without a sense of urgency.
Where's that sense of "we have to fix this now" within the locker room? Veterans aren't supposed to be rattled, but when your back is up against the wall, you want them to display the "never say die" instinct that helps win titles.
At present, that's nowhere to be found in Boston. Not outside of Rivers (and maybe Rondo) anyway. And that's unacceptable.
The Celtics aren't going to turn their season around overnight, but what's truly infuriating are their inconsistent performances. One night, they look like the contender they were supposed to be. Others, they seemingly play defense and offense without a rhyme, reason or overall purpose.
As Rondo noted, sometimes a placid semblance isn't what it's going to take to win. Embodying serenity doesn't work when it's coupled with inertia.
Rivers concluded that the Celtics need to find 12 guys who "play the same way," and right now, they don't have that.
Boston has a full-court floor general in Rondo, playing within a predominantly half-court blueprint. It's stacked to the brim with veterans, yet is void of size. It prides itself on tough defense and a gritty style of basketball, yet it's second-to-last in rebounds grabbed per game (38.9).
Something has to give. And as Rivers admitted, that something may be the roster.
Alterations are going to become a necessity if the Celtics can't find a way to torpedo the languor that has tainted their entire docket.
"You know, they're gonna do what they gonna do," Pierce said (via Blakely). "My job is to go out there and give the necessary effort every night, be as consistent as I can to help this ball club win."
The only problem is, Rivers wouldn't have to say what he said and the front office wouldn't have to "do what they gonna do" if Pierce and company were actually doing the job he speaks of.
*All stats in this article are accurate as of January 20, 2013.