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Slump has caught them off-guard

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter May
Globe Staff / January 15, 2008

Wait till last year?

Can we please turn back the calendar to 2007? These Celtics we've seen in 2008 bear little resemblance to the wrecking crew that terrorized the NBA in November and December.

Ever since the Celtics flew back from Los Angeles, conquerors of the Lakers for the second time and winners of four games in four tries out West, there has been, well, something missing. Against the Bobcats, it was Ray Allen. Last night, and the game before, it was Rajon Rondo. He didn't play at all in Washington Saturday night (an 85-78 loss) and he played sparingly last night, just 21 minutes, none in the fourth quarter. He has a bad back/hamstring.

And the Celtics again struggled offensively, managing just 83 points and losing for the second time in a row for the first time this season. It's also their second straight setback at the once-imposing TD Banknorth Garden.

Other than the gutty win over the Pistons in Auburn Hills Jan. 5, the Celtics have been, well, mighty ordinary in January, winning four of seven games. They eked out down-the-stretch victories at home over two Western Conference teams, Houston and Memphis, helped out by a celestial game from Kevin Garnett in the former and some misfiring Grizzlies in the latter.

There was the big win in Detroit and, since then, thud. Losses to Charlotte and Washington (twice) and a victory over the Nets in Jersey, which, as we now know, is no big deal. Portland, tomorrow night's opponent, shredded the Nets by 16 last night in Jersey.

So what's up? In their last seven games, they've scored in triple figures only once (100 points against Memphis) and have had 86 or fewer in their last four. Their last two point totals, 78 and 83, read like a John Daly scorecard.

"We're not scoring points for some reason," Kendrick Perkins said. "But it's better that it's happening now so we can clean it up."

This is hardly a novel idea - we've been discussing this since the summer - but what is keeping the Celtics from bringing in someone with experience to back up Rondo; in other words, a point guard? Or, failing that, why not thrust Gabe Pruitt into the mix? Isn't that why they drafted him? He may not be ready, but he at least has experience at the position. They could activate ex-Williams point guard Mike Crotty, their jack of all trades, and he'd probably be an upgrade.

Other than Garnett, Rondo may be the one guy the team can ill afford to lose because he makes so much happen out there at both ends. Watching Tony Allen or Eddie House trying to run an offense is like waiting for a turnover to happen. It's not in their DNA. It is in Rondo's. And he is a certifiable beast on defense as well as an excellent rebounder.

"That clearly puts us in a bind," coach Doc Rivers said of Rondo's absence. "We know that."

So does Washington. The Wizards caught a break in playing the Celtics twice without a healthy Rondo. As coach Eddie Jordan offered, "A lot of teams miss a key piece and they have to adjust to win. You lose a 3-point shooter, you plug in another 3-point shooter. That's not a problem. But with Rondo, a pure, push-it type of point guard, they can't duplicate that. It's like a shock to the system when you lose someone key and don't have anyone to duplicate what he does."

But it isn't just Rondo. Ray Allen was 4 of 15 from the field last night and is shooting a career-worst 41.2 percent from the field. The usually reliable Garnett missed five of six shots in the fourth quarter, including a short turnaround with the Celtics trailing by a point late in the game. They blew a 14-point lead in the final 6:22, managing just 6 points the rest of the way, 4 on free throws and the other 2 on a third-chance tip by Garnett.

They're still defending reasonably well - always a good sign - but they look a step slow.

"I think when you look at earlier tapes, we had a lot more spunk and energy," Garnett said. "It's just a matter of refocusing, coming in, and getting back on the right track.

"But that's easier said than done. It's a process. We're gonna take our lumps now. But I'd rather take them now than later."

Even with everyone healthy, it was unrealistic to expect the Celtics to keep winning at the dizzying pace they set in November and December. But with the arrival of 2008, the Celtics seem to have all the swagger of the Fred Thompson campaign. As Garnett noted, there's still plenty of time left in the race, er, season, to get it back to good.

Peter May can be reached at p_may@globe.com

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