CHICAGO -- Somehow, the play that had the least to do with how the Bulls virtually eliminated the Celtics from contention for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference on Thursday night sent Boston on a journey down what Rajon Rondo aptly described as the downhill slope of a roller coaster.
Sometimes, it's like that. An isolated moment turns a basketball game on its head, even if it was the least of the losing team's problems.
With about 9½ minutes left, Derrick Rose beat Rondo to a loose ball, and missed a spot-up 3-pointer from 27 feet. Rondo, who had leaked out, caught an outlet pass and missed a layup. He got the ball back and had his shot blocked by Luol Deng. A demoralizing sequence, seeing as a basket there would've given the Celtics a one-point lead.
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They never got any closer, never matched the Bulls' aggression and cohesion for more than a couple of possessions at a time. By the end of the quarter, the Bulls' one-point lead had grown to 11. In the end, with well-deserved MVP chants filling the United Center for Rose, Chicago beat Boston 97-81 to move within a game of clinching the No. 1 seed and homecourt advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
"We've got to get some more fight in us," Kevin Garnett said.
"We need to look in the mirror and find out who we are," added Jeff Green.
What Celtics coach Doc Rivers sees in the mirror at the moment scares him. And it should. During their four-year run of relentless success, the Celtics have always been the team with no doubts about who and what they were. Until now. The Chicago team the Celtics ran into -- and got run over by -- Thursday night is the only team among the title contenders in the East with a firm grasp of its identity.
"They're playing harder than everybody else, with talent," Rivers said, before offering a nod to his former assistant, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. "I've had some teams, like the team in Orlando that played harder than everybody. But we didn't have Derrick Rose. They're playing harder than everybody, with talent. And I think that comes from Thibs, and I think that comes from Derrick Rose. I think it's those two guys that are driving their team."
Those two guys used to be Rivers and Rondo for the Celtics, with a little elbow grease from Thibodeau thrown in. And to be fair, the two remaining forces behind the Celtics' success may yet be heard from again before summer is over. But to Rivers, this Bulls team eerily reminds him of his 2007-08 Celtics, who won a championship with defense, rugged interior play, and nightly revelations from a point guard who began learning how to control every aspect of the game.
That is not the Celtics anymore. The Bulls have become the Celtics, if that makes sense. These Celtics are 13-9 since trading defensive bedrock Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City for Green and Nenad Krstic, and 8-9 since a five-game winning streak concluded on March 9. Rondo, who has struggled for a month, was thoroughly outplayed Thursday night by Rose, who blew right past him all night for 30 points and eight assists in an MVP-clinching performance if there ever was one.
The Celtics? They were left to ponder what they once were, and whether they will be able to get that back.
|As the playoffs approach, Doc Rivers and the Celtics have an identity crisis. (Getty Images)|
Thibodeau, using the same defensive schemes that fueled the Celtics' '08 championship to hold his former team to 38 percent shooting, had it partially right before the game when asked to weigh in on his former team and the aftermath of the Perkins trade.
"They hedged their bets," Thibodeau said. "They did a good job taking a chance with Shaq and Jermaine [O'Neal], and they have great length up front. And they had the foresight to plan if there were injuries, that they would be able to withstand them. Which they have. Look at their record."
But barring a miracle from either O'Neal in the postseason, the Perkins trade is looking more and more like it will be the Celtics' undoing. Maybe it was an overreaction to Pat Riley hoarding talent in Miami, and if so, there's a paradox there. If the Celtics had simply remained who they were, they would've had something to anchor them heading into the playoffs. Now, they search for an identity along with Miami and Orlando, while the Bulls emerge with the best record in the conference and the best sense of who they are.
"We know that we can beat them," Rose said.
That kind of confidence is what triggered each of the Celtics' three postseason runs since they brought Garnett and Ray Allen together with Rondo and Paul Pierce. The absence of it, simply by subtracting one piece of the puzzle, only illustrates how fleeting and delicate cohesion and chemistry are in basketball. The team that has cornered the market on both for three years may have tried to outsmart itself with this one.
"We made all the moves, so it's tough to really know who you are," Rivers said. "We knew that when we decided to do this. But we'll discover that and we've got to do a better job of figuring that out."
After an excursion to Washington on Friday, the Celtics head to Miami on Sunday to face a team they've beaten three times this season. The No. 1 seed is all but out of reach, but this one could decide homecourt advantage if and when Boston faces Miami in the playoffs.
But in the visiting locker room of the United Center on Thursday night, the Celtics weren't thinking about the team from South Beach but rather the one from the West Side of Chicago -- a team they haven't beaten since December. They were thinking about the team that reminds them a lot of what they used to be, and about what happens if they see them again.
"Like it or not," Rondo said, "these are probably the guys we'll meet, whether it's the conference finals or whenever it may be."
And unless something changes dramatically, only one of those teams will show up with a complete understanding of who they are.