There were about seven and a half minutes left when Kevin Garnett  began his slow walk to the scorer’s table. Everything Garnett does when he’s off the court is deliberate. It’s a veteran’s move to save whatever reserves of energy he has left, and Garnett knows every trick in the book. But this walk seemed slower for some reason. Maybe it was the sleeve wrapped around his right calf, or maybe it was just the effect of another grueling night in what seems like an endless parade of games.
All around him bodies were hitting the floor. Ron Artest  and Ray Allen  were in the process of untangling themselves under the basket after yet another high-speed collision. Every loose ball was a fight to the finish. and every shot was being contested. If you’re a fan of the NBA, this is why you watch games in January.
As Garnett made his way on to the court there was a feeling that the moment was there. This was when the Celtics  blocked out all the things that have been plaguing them for the last two weeks–all the back-to-backs, all the travel, all the little breakdowns–and made a stand.
A few minutes later, Artest committed his sixth foul after locking Paul Pierce  in an abdominal stretch. Artest glared at Pierce, who never so much as turned around. With a wave of his hand, Pierce motioned his nemesis to the bench. It was straight-up cold blooded.
There were more moments. A Pierce jumper from the top of the key tied it. Garnett blocked a shot by the quicksilver guard, Aaron Brooks, and outfought three Rockets for the ball. This was it, only it didn’t happen. (Go here for a recap ).
A journeyman shooter named Von Wafer  knocked down a 3-pointer in front of the Celtics bench with everyone in green hollering in his ear. Yao Ming  got a rebound because he’s 7-foot-6 and then dropped in a layup, because as Doc Rivers  sighed after the game, “He’s long. Real long.”
It was the Celtics third loss in a row and their sixth in their last eight games, and they knew it before it was over. “You could see it in their eyes in the huddle with about 40 seconds left,” Rivers said. “(Shoot). We’re going to lose this game. It wasn’t (a lack of) confidence. It bothered them.”
The Celtics play Cleveland on Friday and you wouldn’t find a soul on press row who would take them, or the points, in that one. They’re tired. The bench is struggling. The defense isn’t right. The offense has gotten bogged down. They’re exposed?
The Celtics were having none of it afterward. “I told the guys we need to get our defensive swagger back,” Pierce said. “It’s been broken these last 10 or 12 days. We know what we’re capable of. It’s just going back to basics and getting the job done. The confidence is still there. It’s a long season and that’s what we try to tell each other. We bend but don’t break. That’s what it’s all about.”
This is the reality of the situation. The Celtics have never gone through a stretch like this in the Paul-Ray-Kevin era. Yes, they had some issues in the playoffs, and no, the regular season isn’t nearly as important. But, and there is a but, the Celtics have not gone through a stretch like this before, and the rest of the league is licking their chops at a chance to knock the champs down a peg or two.
The issues didn’t start with the losing. There was a feeling at the end of the 19-game winning streak that things weren’t quite right. Rivers voiced his concerns then but they were drowned out by the record-setting run.
“Now you believe me,” Rivers said before tip-off. “I don’t know if it’s inevitable or not. It doesn’t change who we are or who we think we are. It doesn’t affect us a staff and what we have to work on. These are the dog days. From Christmas to the All-Star break. Last year we really focused though it. We did a hell of a job.”
Now, they head into Cleveland into what will surely be as hostile an environment as they will see until the playoffs in April. It will make Atlanta look like Romper Room and they need of a win. You could see the glint in Pierce’s eye when he was asked about Friday’s showdown.
“This is the team we put out of the playoffs,” he said. “This is the best home team in all of basketball. We’re going to get their best punch. We have to be ready for their best shot. The way they have been playing at home has been unbelievable, but the way we are playing, this is a great way to get back on track.”