The world of preseason is a blissful place. Everyone is undefeated, and even when you lose a game, it doesn't count. It gives coaches time to tinker, and experiment, and lay out a grand blueprint earmarked with fervent hopes and ambitions.
Who can blame the Celtics for dreaming that anything is possible? The Red Sox are the World Series champions, the Patriots are defending Super Bowl champions, while Boston's basketball entry, the most decorated sports franchise in town, is long overdue.
With a number of the Red Sox players strolling through the FleetCenter last night wearing Celtics warmups and the grins of champions, Celtics captain Paul Pierce, caught up in the moment, exclaimed, "Let's make it three in a row, y'all."
A touch of hyperbole, to be sure, but hey, let's not ruin the moment. The Celtics opened their 2004-05 season with a new coach, new players, a new attitude, and, with any luck at all, a new resolve. They do not need to win 21 in a row, as the Patriots did, to regain their standing. Nor do they need to win a championship, as their baseball counterparts have done.
They simply need to play hard, play together, and win some games.
To accomplish all three last night in the season opener against division rival Philadelphia, and old friend and former Celtics coach Jim O'Brien, would have merely been an added bonus.
It sounded good, anyway. The Celtics led by 18 points in the third quarter, clung tight to a 6-point lead with five minutes left in the game, then watched it get wrenched from their grasp by Philadelphia's irrepressible Allen Iverson.
Thus, a new coach, new players, and a new attitude merely yielded new problems last night.
Like how to close out a win.
You can be sure first-year coach Doc Rivers will be tossing and turning over this one. Until the final eight minutes of the game, his players did everything he could have hoped for: they ran the ball, they shot the ball, they defended the ball. Understand that the Celtics scored 83 points through three, and shot 57.7 percent as they did it. It should not shock you to learn the high score and the high shooting percentage were the result of transition baskets, i.e. easy lay-ins and 2-on-1 breaks, exactly the style of basketball Danny Ainge has been pining for ever since he took over this operation.
Will the Celtics be able to continue their uptempo style throughout the grind of an 82-game schedule? That's a question for another night. It would be a mistake to draw too many conclusions after one basketball game, but for those who were wondering whether Gary Payton would bother to give his all to the boys in green, you should have seen him jawing at veteran official Jack Nies after he was whistled with his fourth foul at 9:38 of the third quarter, and was forced to leave the game. He left having submitted a tidy line of 8 assists and 6 points (he was 2 of 2 from the floor and 1 of 1 from the line). He was enjoying himself out there, broken thumb and all, and he was providing the kind of backcourt leadership and control that has been missing from this lineup for years.
But the temper of the combustible Payton hurt him at the most inopportune time. When he was tagged with his fifth foul with just over eight minutes to play, he lingered a little too long in Nies's face, and he slapped him with a technical. Payton was banished back to the bench, and the Sixers were shooting a free throw.
There were some familiar themes to Boston's performance. Once again, Paul Pierce logged heavy minutes, took tons of shots (23), and scored 35 of the team's points. He was counting on Payton, Ricky Davis, and Raef LaFrentz deflecting some of the offensive attention away from him this year, but that only happened in spurts.
It was not an explosive, Hey-I'm-Back! kind of night for LaFrentz, who is recovering from knee surgery that kept him away from the game for most of last season. He did, however, come up with a couple of key plays when the game was on the line. The Sixers had wiped out an 18-point third-quarter deficit and cut it to 2 with 7:47 left, and Payton had already been banished to the pine again with his fifth personal. The Celtics needed a basket - badly - and LaFrentz delivered with a jumper from the foul circle that swished through and stopped the bleeding. After a Sixers miss, he hit the floor and collected a loose ball to keep Boston's possession alive.
But, when Boston needed a bucket to bail them out of this sudden mess they found themselves in, consecutive misses by Davis (a wing jumper), Payton (a three that rolled in and out), and Mark Blount (an errant layup from 3 feet away) left the immediately somber Fleet crowd feeling dissatisfied yet again.
It is only one game, albeit a demoralizing, disappointing one. You hope that Tony Allen will get more minutes, and that Al Jefferson will improve with warp speed. You hope there are better days ahead. You hope the dreams are grander than this.