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ON BASKETBALL

There's no soft-pedaling this team's problems

How thoughtful of the Celtics to allow their fans to leave early to catch the Patriots game and miss nothing at the FleetCenter. By that time, the Celtics and Spurs were playing before a Summer League crowd, the outcome having been decided much earlier in the afternoon. Look at it this way, the team performed a public service. As for basketball, well, that's another matter altogether, except for the fact that the Celtics were every bit as considerate of their opponent as they were of their fans. The Spurs came into the game struggling offensively, losers of three straight, and proceeded to shoot 53 percent and score 109 points. It was just the eighth time the Spurs hit 100 points this season; they're 7-1 when they do.

The 109-92 loss was a wire-to-wire job. In their last two home games, the Celtics have not so much as held a single lead. They did manage two ties against the Rockets. They trailed yesterday from the moment old friend Bruce Bowen dropped a 3-pointer to open the scoring and fell farther and farther behind as the game progressed.

It was a flat-out pistol-whipping. The Spurs dominated the boards (50-34) -- guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili had more rebounds (13) than the three Celtics big men (Mark Blount, Chris Mihm, and Vin Baker, who each had 4). The Spurs had a 20-point advantage scoring inside and a 6-point advantage in second-chance points. They didn't even need Tim Duncan to play like Tim Duncan, although the Big Fundamental, who has never lost to the Celtics, still had 15 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocked shots.

And, after the game, coach Jim O'Brien said the "s" word. "We will not be soft at the defensive end," he said.

Earlier this season, after a home loss to the Knicks (a fourth straight loss), Paul Pierce called out his teammates and said they were soft. Yesterday, O'Brien again raised the topic. It was hard to avoid after watching the Spurs trample over everything and everyone. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich has been known to use the "s" word as well about his team -- and he's got two rings. He also has Duncan and, luckily for the Spurs, Tony Parker showed up yesterday with his A game. "Call off the search party," Popovich said. "We've found him."

O'Brien had no such luck with anyone. Paul Pierce had 19 points and took 18 shots. Ricky Davis needed 14 shots to get his 14 points. O'Brien tried changing lineups in the second half. He went to Baker as the first man off the bench, and still got nothing. As Bob Cousy noted, "I think we've set network television back 20 years."

Defense is a must for O'Brien and he was clearly an unhappy camper after this one. Over the last four games, all losses, he's watched his team surrender 111, 95, 124, and 109 points. The worst any team has shot against Boston in that stretch is 48.4 percent. The Rockets and Spurs both shot 50 percent or better.

O'Brien came close to drawing a line in the sand after this one. He said he won't settle for what he saw yesterday. He said he will play people who will play defense, even if it means keeping those people on the floor the entire game. Of course, it won't come to that; that was the exasperation talking. And he has to be exasperated.

"I guess I would say that I will play only the people from here on out that will make it a point not to let the basketball get to the rim," O'Brien said. "If I have to play Mark Blount, as an example, for 48 minutes, I'll play him 48 minutes."

You think the coach misses Eric Williams and Tony Battie right about now? It's been more than a month since they left. The Celtics were 12-12 when Williams, Battie, and Kedrick Brown were sent to Cleveland. Yesterday's loss dropped them to 20-23, including a ridiculous 10-13 at home.

The post-Antoine, pre-Ricky Celtics figured they'd need 20 to 25 games to find themselves. They were just starting to get there when the Dec. 15 trade was made. The post-Eric Celtics have played 18 games (the game against the Timberwolves doesn't count because the new guys weren't here). The latest incarnation needs the same cushion, maybe even longer, but the schedule and good opponents keep getting in the way.

The Celtics might have added more talent in the Cavs trade, at least offensive, athletic talent. The deal did not improve their defense -- and the team's chemistry took a big hit. The Celtics are still recovering. The only problem now is that the recovery at times looks as though it's being managed on a Big Dig timetable. Yesterday's wipeout only drove home that point.

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