BOSTON — Already down double digits with their title defense on the line, the Boston Celtics sent three second-round picks out to start the second quarter.
That's not exactly a Big Three.
And that's why the Celtics won't repeat as champions. Doc Rivers said before the game the NBA is a players' league, and he simply didn't have enough of them.
Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen made Boston the NBA's best. With Garnett sidelined and Pierce and Allen overworked, the Celtics were just a .500 team — 7-7 in this postseason after a 101-82 loss to Orlando on Sunday in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
It must have pained Rivers that every time he turned to his right to look down the bench for a player to put in, he had to look over Garnett's head. Last year, he could tap solid role players such as James Posey, P.J. Brown and Leon Powe. The first two are gone and Powe's on the injured list with Garnett.
That left Glen Davis and Brian Scalabrine, two of those second rounders, to defend Rashard Lewis, an All-Star who scored 19 points. Think Garnett might have done better?
"I thought it was the combination of Kevin and Leon that hurt us," Rivers said. "Obviously we missed Kevin. He was the defensive player of the year last year."
The Celtics built last year's team on the defensive standard Garnett set and demanded teammates live up to. The Lakers were practically untouched in the playoffs until the finals, when the Celtics hit Kobe Bryant with a defense that was as good as he'd ever seen.
Without Garnett, and without a legitimate stopper like Posey, there was no chance of that this time. The Celtics entered Sunday's game yielding 102.2 points per game in the playoffs, 12th among the 16 teams who made the postseason and more than 13 above last spring's average.
"This has been different," Rivers said before the game. "Each night almost we've been a different team. We've been an offensive team in some of the Chicago games and some of these games, and we won a couple games being a defensive team. Obviously we know who we would like to be every night, but it just hasn't worked out that way."
And it didn't Sunday. Dwight Howard threw down three dunks in the first 61/2 minutes, and it seemed every time the Celtics seemed poised to make a run, they would blow an assignment and give up an easy basket on a pick-and-roll — a play Garnett was so good at defending.
Pierce said after he the game he thought the Celtics were good enough to repeat, "when we have a healthy group of guys."
"You can't cry over spilled milk, but unfortunately we didn't have the big fella for this run," he added.
Considering what they had, it's almost surprising the Celtics didn't go out sooner.
If Chicago doesn't allow Allen to get so open off a screen late in Game 2, the Bulls might have taken a 2-0 lead back home, instead of being tied at one game apiece. If Davis doesn't knock down a jumper as time expired in Game 4 of this series — a shot the Magic would settle for him taking any time — Orlando wins that game, then could have wrapped it up in Game 5, which it led by 14 points in the fourth quarter before collapsing.
The Celtics had the Game 7 experience, winning three of them in the last two years. But that was without having to rely so heavily on the likes of Davis, Scalabrine and Eddie House.
The Celtics knew they didn't have enough if an injury happened. They wanted to keep Posey, but after he'd won his two rings in three years, even Garnett understood why he went for the millions New Orleans offered. They kept in touch with Brown during the season, but there was no coaxing him into coming back.
The teams still playing for a title found ways to get better during the season. Orlando traded for Rafer Alston after All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson was lost with a shoulder injury. The Cavaliers brought in Joe Smith. Everyone knows the difference Chauncey Billups made for Denver.
The best the Celtics could do was Stephon Marbury, who sparked the Game 5 comeback but otherwise hasn't rediscovered his game after sitting out most of the season in New York, and Mikki Moore, who never took off his warmup jersey in Game 7 until the final meaningless minutes.
Still, the Celtics refused to go out in the first round, surviving a thrilling series with the Bulls before going the distance with the Magic. But even if they won this series, it would've been hard to imagine a way they could beat Cleveland — which would have been tough even with Garnett.
Rivers said he'd leave it up to the critics to decide if the Celtics' title defense was good enough if they lost this series, but added only one thing would satisfy him: "Winning."
Not with this roster.