This Friday night began with such emotion, so much genuine emotion, it was a spitting shame to see what the home team had become.
As they walked onto the court before the game, during timeouts, after the first quarter, the heroes — the real heroes who rose to the call of duty in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings — were greeted by thunderous applause at TD Garden.
Policemen, firefighters, EMS personnel, they would receive standing ovations that would last as long and loud as the next whistle that demanded play be resumed. Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick was here. So was Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis and Watertown Police Chief Ed Deveau and other faces that became so familiar to us as we sat transfixed to the television while the cowards who killed innocent human beings and terrorized a city were finally hunted down.
Yet beyond the familiar, there were nurses and and doctors and marathon volunteers, men and women we would only know by the deeds they would perform. Before The Voices of Freedom sang the national anthem, there was a moment of silence interrupted by a couple of fans shouting Kevin Garnett's and Paul Pierce's names. The ceremonies remained splendid and moving in their simplicity.
"They've been through a lot,'' coach Doc Rivers said before this Game 3 loss that pushed the Celtics to within 48 minutes of elimination. "They can't get enough support. They can't get enough love. It will be wonderful for them and for the fans."
Doc would know. His own dad was a policeman.
Yes, it was the kind of inspiring night that figured to blow the top off TD Garden. The kind of night where all those white "Boston Strong" T-shirts handed out by the team would transform into the green of the Celtic Pride.
Only it didn't.
If ever there was a night the Celtics would rise up and show their old fighting spirit, surely this would be the night, right?
Nope. The Celtics had nothing.
Think about if. If the Celtics were old and creaky, at least they are hell on wheels at home in the playoffs. And the Knicks hadn't won a road playoff game since April 29, 2001.
Nope. Didn't matter. The Celtics can't even make it a series. And if it doesn't end Sunday afternoon here, nobody really sees it going much past Game 5 in New York. And worse than a smattering of boos was the quiet in TD Garden. The night started louder than a rock concert. It ended as a shhhh …. library."
"We wanted to play well, we didn't," Rivers said after the 90-76 loss that didn't play as close as the score. "We missed some shots early. You just have to be mentally tougher. We lost our spirit in one stretch, the last five minutes of the second quarter [where they were outscored 11-0] and it hurt us."
Remember all that talk from a few months ago that the Celtics were a better team without the injured Rajon Rondo? Well, you'd be carted away in a straitjacket by men in white suits if you suggested that today.
Carmelo Anthony is 28. He's in his prime. Garnett is 36. Pierce is 35. They aren't. Superstar case closed.
This list of things that have gone wrong for the Celtics in this series is long and the story of breaking up the team will grow longer in the coming weeks. Yet for this night, we can probably start with the stomach bug Avery Bradley, who has been overwhelmed in this series, had in the hours leading into the game. Suffice to say, it was Rivers and 18,000 fans who felt sick to their stomach afterward.
Not even a bone-headed played by the Knicks' J.R. Smith could change things. With 7:06 left, Smith was called for a flagrant-2 and was ejected for throwing an elbow at Jason Terry. The Knicks were up a thousand. Smith had the ball. What the heck was he thinking? Terry started after Smith before Rivers intercepted his guy.
"I wish I was still playing," said Rivers, obviously disgusted by Smith. "I didn't like that."
The Celtics had been terrific in the first half of the first two games. Their 54 percent shooting in the first half was the best in the NBA playoffs. The problem, of course, was the disappearing act of the second half. All the turnovers. The lousy shooting. They scored 48 points combined in the second half of the games 1 and 2 losses. They shot a hideous 22 percent in the second half, obviously the worst in the NBA playoffs.
They didn't waste any time playing poorly on this night. They fell behind 16 by halftime and never recovered. They shot 35 percent in the first half, 14 of 40, 2-for-10 from three. They never made any run in the second half. It was over.
Doc tried juggling the lineup. He started Terry alongside Bradley. He brought Brandon Bass off the bench. It didn't work. Nothing is working.
"I don't know, we're 0-3, I may start you next game if you can give me something," Rivers said to a reporter. "I was just trying to alleviate some pressure from Avery. I just think all the ball-handling he's doing is just too much. Our thinking is they start with two small guards, so it's a good matchup for us. I liked it. We got good shots. We just didn't make anything. At the end of the day, it didn't work. But I liked it.
"I'll watch the tape tonight. That'll be fun."
You got the feeling if Doc didn't laugh a little, he'd start to cry.
"I don't mind the pressure on Paul [Pierce], honestly," Rivers said. "We're asking other guys right now to do way too much. We don't have a lot of choices in the matter. We can add more guards on the floor at times with them. I just think it's too much, obviously. We have to figure out a way of relieving some pressure."
According to ESPN, the Celtics were 13-0 in home playoff games after a road loss in the same postseason and Garnett averaged 21.4 points and 10.8 rebounds in those games. The Celtics are 32-8 at home and 14-27 on the road in the playoffs since Garnett joined the team — numbers that are floated frequently as testament to Boston's invincibility at home in the spring. Not any more.
Garnett did do his part on this night, pulling in 17 rebounds to go with 12 points.
"He played so hard," Rivers said. "He missed some shots he'd like to have back. But he really wanted to win tonight. He was fantastic. That's why you love him. I got the sense he was frustrated because he wanted [his teammates] to be in the same spirit.
"He's as competitive a human being as I've ever been around."
Unfortunately for Doc, on a grand night that turned so sour and quiet, there weren't enough Kevin Garnetts in green.