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Remember back when the New Big Three first got together and simply ripped through the NBA? Sure there were minor hiccups along the way. For instance: a home loss to an awful Charlotte Bobcats team followed with back-to-back losses to a mediocre Washington Wizards team in the same week. There was the three-game losing streak (to the Nuggets, Warriors and Suns) immediately following the all-star break. Utah did a number on them at home as well, torching them by 18. Even the Wizards beat them for the third time towards the end of the year.
Throughout that regular season you could sense that they played as if the basketball apocalypse was imminent. They wanted to put the world on notice that they weren’t messing around any longer. Now, well, they’ll be content to pace themselves to the finish line while reluctantly accepting other “elite” teams to sprint past them.
When Paul Pierce missed his trademark fade-away jumper at the elbow last night in Milwaukee, it was just another loss that allowed them to repeat the same reasons as to why they’re not putting teams away. Sure the Bucks are one of the hottest teams in the league right now. But I remember a game they played at home against the Bucks early in their 2008 championship season when reporters began pointing out how historically good they were becoming. Kevin Garnett didn’t want to hear it. He had only one thing to say:
"I'm not trying to be smart, but I'm not even aware of any of the records," Garnett said. "Every game is critical for us. We are preparing for each team like it's our last game."
Compare that to what their mantra is nowadays:
Rivers doesn’t want to saddle his players with ownership of the problem.
“They do take some, but at the end of the day I put it on me to find that right combination that will turn on the next combination,” he said. “I’ve been in that continued search for that, but I don’t ever put that on the players. At the end of the day it’s got to be me. I have to figure out a great way of getting them motivated, and picking the right spots.”
As always, Doc does a great job of deflecting the responsibility from the players towards himself. While it’s noble of him to fall on the sword, we can all read between the lines. Their mission statement has gone from “We are on a search and destroy mission from October through June,” to “Once we get to the playoffs, if we’re healthy, if we’re motivated, if we feel like it, we’ll play hard for at least a half, we promise.”
Ultimately this team can only be judged by what happens in the playoffs now. It’s beyond the point of no return to give fans any semblance of an “elite” regular season. If they can somehow replicate that 2008 magic (or even the 1969 glory of their green forefathers) then all of these maddening efforts will become a distant memory.