The Boston Celtics suffered their fifth straight loss Monday night and their fourth in a row at TD Garden when the Oklahoma City Thunder kept them at arm's reach throughout the second half after jumping out to a commanding lead thanks to the scoring combination of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the inside defensive presence of Serge Ibaka and former Celtics defensive stalwart Kendrick Perkins.
The loss strongly resembled many of the Celtics losses this season that saw them dig themselves an insurmountable hole before a third quarter rally that would ultimately leave them with nothing in the tank for the fourth quarter.
As you watch this team try and compete against the elite teams in the NBA this season (Miami, Chicago, Oklahoma City, etc.), you notice that the gap in speed and athleticism has become so drastic that no level of teamwork or system play is going to save them.
Simply put: This Celtics team is toast.
With wins over only the dregs of the league to this point (Washington twice, Detroit, and New Jersey), it's fair to wonder whether this team will even make the playoffs in an Eastern Conference that has routinely had teams qualify with losing records over the past decade.
Following the loss, Paul Pierce chalked up the teams 4-8 start to the team being out of shape. Putting aside the fact that it was the player's responsibility to keep themselves in shape during the long lockout that lasted into November, it's a poor excuse for the team's current level of play.
Pierce himself is having trouble shooting the ball from the perimeter because he has next to no lift in his legs right now to shoot contested shots. Kevin Garnett's inability to get above the rim to finish alley-oops from Rajon Rondo and his lack of lateral mobility on defense indicate that his tank is also on empty.
President and General Manager Danny Ainge swore up and down that he would not allow this team to go down the same path that franchise icon Red Auerbach led the Larry Bird era Celtics on. However, barring a trade that will rid the team of Garnett, that's exactly where this team is headed.
It is true that after the season, the team will have a great deal of cap space thanks to the expiring deals of KG and Ray Allen, but with only Rondo and a very worn and weary Pierce on the roster, there's very little to build with and attract potential building blocks as free agents. Essentially, the 2012-2013 Celtics could look awfully similar to the 1993-1994 Celtics.
It's always dangerous to draw definitive conclusions after 12 games in an NBA season, but with only 66 games in this particular season, those 12 games represent almost a quarter of the year. It's certainly possible that this team could find a way to right the ship and get themselves into a better position to compete once the playoffs get on a roll, but the more likely scenario is that they'll continue to beat weaker teams like the Wizards and struggle against the league's elite.
The model that Ainge is probably holding out hope for is the one that has been put forth by the San Antonio Spurs. Despite the absence of Manu Ginobili and the extremely advanced age of future Hall of Fame big Tim Duncan, the Spurs have continued to compete at a good level this season. Not to mention, they finished as the top team in the Western Conference last season before getting manhandled by the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs.
The reason the Spurs have remained competitive this season is because they have drafted smartly and signed quality free agents that have allowed coach Greg Popovich to rest his aging veterans. In fact, the Spurs bench, which consists of Gary Neal, Tiago Splliter, Matt Bonner, Kawhi Leonard, and Daniel Green, has played more minutes this season than the starters have.
The Celtics haven't been able to replicate this model because Danny Ainge has drafted incredibly poorly, despite drafting from roughly the same position as the Spurs. Both teams have been drafting in the late 20's for the last few seasons, but the Spurs have been able to find much more talent. Among the Celtics' first round picks in the last five years, only Rondo has become a significant contributor for the team. In fact, a few of them are not even in the league any longer (J.R. Giddens comes to mind, in particular).
Watching this Celtics team play basketball has become almost sad. Seeing the diminished ability of players like Pierce and Garnett has been a sobering reminder of how fragile a career in the NBA can be. Last season, both Pierce and Garnett looked as though they'd be solid contributors as they put up strong numbers, and now they both look like they should be coming off the bench rather than trying to drag themselves through a final season.
Danny Ainge has only himself to blame for the current situation. He put this team together with the understanding that it would only be viable for a few seasons, and as such, he would need to draft well and sign free agents in order to help his aging stars keep their legs and maximize their remaining years. By not drafting well in recent years and not bringing in enough quality bench players the last two seasons, the aging process has been accelerated to the point that it appears, at least for now, that this team can no longer compete with the best the NBA has to offer.