Their game is straight out of the 1950s. A bad team of the '50s. The Celtics aren't running. They aren't passing. They aren't scoring. They aren't winning.
The Miami Heat came to the FleetCenter last night and squeezed out a 90-74 victory. That came about 24 hours after the Celtics scored 70 points in a loss to the Knicks. So that means on back-to-back nights, the Celtics came up with two scoring performances that rank among their worst six in the shot-clock (1954) era. Miami, one of the most methodical teams in the NBA today, looked like one of Doug Moe's or Paul Westhead's teams against the Celtics.
This did not please Rick Pitino. After the game, he defined the problems and gave a hint to what the future may be if they are not solved.
"The thing that kills this basketball team right now is our lack of passing," the coach said. "We just refuse to create ball movement. Until we start making the pass more important than the shot, we will never play Celtic basketball."
That's not entirely true. The Celtics certainly aren't playing like the Celtics who slipped on green uniforms and created wizardry in parts of the '60s, '70s, and '80s. But at this point, can anyone say they don't resemble the 1996-97 Celtics? Then again, that team was able to do something this one hasn't: score 100 points.
Pitino's team is 1-3. His first Knick team was 1-7. But before anyone gets any comparative ideas, the coach emphasized that the difference was that the Knicks "were playing good basketball" and not winning.
The Celtics are playing awful basketball and not winning. Once again, they did the zombie thing in the first half, scoring 31 points and shooting 30 percent from the field. You can't do that against teams coached by Pat Riley. They become crazed when they sniff missed shots, becoming even more maniacal in their half-court defense. It was 47-31 at the half, and you could see Pitino's agitation.
"We're a young team; it's not going to happen this year," a frustrated Pitino said afterward. "I've said that all along. I don't think it's a legitimate basketball team. I think it has great potential down the road. That's what we're going to work at, the great potential. It's not going to happen this year, no matter what people say."
After watching the third quarter, no one would argue that the Celtics are going to do anything other than make their usual May trip to beautiful Secaucus, N.J. They cut the lead to 6, 62-56, with three minutes remaining in the third. Then they couldn't score for nine minutes. By the time they did, it was 73-58. For the night, they shot 38 percent (29 for 76).
Jamal Mashburn was open all night and scored 32 points. Tim Hardaway and P.J. Brown had 14 apiece. "Offense hasn't been a problem for us," Mashburn said. "If we play good defense, we can win the championship."
The young men in green have tremendous offensive problems. Their best player, Antoine Walker, is in a shooting slump. He made 8 of 24 shots last night, following a 2-for-15 night in New York. Their second-, third-, and fourth-best players are in slumps, too. Everybody is off. Pitino warned that somebody among them had better start passing.
"If we can't get players to pass," he said, "then we've got to make trades. It's as simple as that."
We don't have to mention that this is not an idle threat. Pitino and general manager Chris Wallace have already hooked up on four trades (including the failed Dino Radja deal) in five months.
Now everyone says they need to practice. Perhaps that should concern you, too. The Celtics went through double sessions well after training camp and into the exhibition season. You would think that passing lessons would have sunk in by now. But they had 20 assists and 17 turnovers last night. They had rookie point man Chauncey Billups on the bench for all but 37 minutes, and Walker, a forward, was their leading assist man with five. He also had six turnovers.
The Celtics try to cure themselves with practice this morning and a game tomorrow against the Cavaliers. They need to get their shooting percentage out of the 30s. They need to get their game out of the '50s.