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NETS 92, CELTICS 78

Celtics at a loss, even with Pierce

Record skid reaches 17 as long-patient fans finally voice displeasure

Paul Pierce shows his game face -- which had been absent since Dec. 20 -- as he drives past New Jersey defender Vince Carter in the first half. Paul Pierce shows his game face -- which had been absent since Dec. 20 -- as he drives past New Jersey defender Vince Carter in the first half. (BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)

Paul Pierce finally played last night for the first time in more than seven weeks. The result was no different than the last time he had worn No. 34 for real and the Celtics are now inching achingly, agonizingly closer to record book Armageddon.

It is now 17 straight defeats after a disheartening 92-78 defeat to the New Jersey Nets, a game the Celtics were never really in over the final 17-plus minutes. In what could have been a real heartwarmer, complete with the return of the prodigal Pierce, it was instead another stinkbomb, this one punctuated by well-deserved boos by some of the 17,829 who braved the show.

"We can't be mad at the fans for booing," said Al Jefferson. "We have to be mad at ourselves. That's the way I look at it."

Pierce was predictably rusty (4 of 16, 9 points in 20 minutes) and his return did, at least for a night, steer the topic of conversation a bit away from the elephant in the room. The Celtics also extended their franchise record for consecutive home losses to 13 and fell to 4-21 overall on the parquet, but much of the postmortem focused on the captain and whether his teammates might have been expecting too much from a guy who hadn't played since Dec. 20.

"Right when he walked on the floor, our guys just stopped and watched him for a little while," coach Doc Rivers said. "Still, I like him being on the floor. I think it will eventually help everybody out. Other than that, not a lot to talk about."

Pierce missed his first eight shots and it was clear he had little to no lift. But his teammates weren't much better, shooting 34.6 percent, and that's only because the Nets stopped playing defense in the final two minutes. The Celtics trailed by 10 or more points over the final 17 minutes 22 seconds, and never got closer than 12 in the fourth. And they officially took over spot No. 30 in the NBA with Memphis's win over the Timberwolves. Players can expect to see copies of Jillian Michaels's "Winning By Losing" any day now in their locker.

Whereas in more than a few of these losses the Celtics have at least been competitive and the games have been close, this one was neither. They never led. They managed two ties, the second coming on the first basket of the third quarter. Jefferson again had nifty numbers (13 points, 17 rebounds, 2 blocks) and Delonte West did score 21 points (needing 16 shots to do it) but there was no there there. There's more interest in promoting Gerald Green's appearance in the Slam Dunk contest.

Jefferson was asked about the boos, which have been rare during this hideous stretch. The fans have been forgiving and patient for the most part, understanding that the Celtics were not exactly in the championship discussion with a healthy roster. With a depleted roster, they have that unmistakable D-League look right now.

"I think they had a right to boo," Jefferson said. "It just seemed like we didn't want the game. I'm frustrated. I'm angry. I'm mad. We're the ones out there losing. Ain't no one else doing it but us."

The Nets served notice from the start that they did not want to be remembered as The Team That Lost To Boston. They opened the game with a 10-0 spurt in the first 2 1/2 minutes. The Celtics eventually knotted things at 14, but Jersey broke the tie and led by 3 (19-16) after one. The lead was still 3 at the half (42-39), and after a Brian Scalabrine 3-pointer produced a 44-44 tie in the third, the Nets took over. Vince Carter (21 points) had 7 points during a 17-4 run, which blew the lead out to 59-46.

The Nets had held a similar lead in the second quarter and saw it reduced by 10. This time they made sure that did not happen, keeping things in the double-digit comfort zone the rest of the way, blowing things out to as many as 20 in the fourth. New Jersey has lost a host of heartbreakers recently, and coach Lawrence Frank joked that he kept asking the scorekeeper if the score was, indeed, correct.

"I'm glad it didn't come down to a last-second shot," said Jason Kidd (13 points, 9 assists, 8 rebounds).

It didn't come close to that. The Celtics haven't really been close in awhile. In the first 10 losses of this ridiculous streak, the Celtics lost by 10 or more points only once. Of the last seven losses, five have been by 11 or more points and one of the single-digit losses was the 7-point manhandling at Detroit Tuesday, which felt more like 17.

There are two more opportunities before the All-Star break, tomorrow at Minnesota and Wednesday against the Bucks. "It'd be nice to get one," Rivers said. Given that a tough West Coast trip awaits on the other end, they'd better get one.

Peter May can be reached at P_May@globe.com.

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