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Road not taken

Celtics are at a loss to explain problems

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / May 14, 2008

Celtics forward Kevin Garnett can be very introspective in postgame media sessions and often comes up with some of the most interesting analogies. But following each of the past two road losses in Cleveland, there has been one question that even the deep-thinking Garnett can't seem to answer.

Why have the Celtics struggled on the road in the playoffs?

"If I knew that, man, I don't think we'd be having these conversations or these problems on the road," Garnett said.

The Celtics won an NBA-best 31 road games in the regular season. But thus far in the playoffs, the Celtics are 0-5 on the road, with three losses in the first round in Atlanta and two in the second round in Cleveland. They haven't won a road game since April 14 at New York. On the flip side, the Celtics are 6-0 at TD Banknorth Garden in the postseason.

When it came to answering the tough road question, Garnett wasn't the only Celtic who struggled with it.

"I wish I could really answer that," said James Posey. "I can't. I don't know."

Said Ray Allen, "It's hard to say. I have no answer for it. I have no answer."

With the Celtics stumped, two renowned New England sports psychologists, Harvey N. Dulberg and Alan Goldberg, were asked to give their take, with Game 5 of the best-of-seven series coming up tonight at the Garden.

Dulberg has 28 years of experience working with professional, Olympic, college, and high school athletes. While there is not enough room for the entire Celtics team and coaching staff to fit in his 250-square-foot office in Brookline, he had some interesting theories as to why the Celtics are struggling on the road.

Boston has several players with lots of postseason experience. Sam Cassell has two NBA titles, Posey has one, and Garnett, Allen, and Paul Pierce have all played in a conference final. But seven of the 12 players on the roster weren't here a season ago, so this is essentially the Celtics' first postseason experience as a team. The Cavaliers, though they made a major midseason trade, are the reigning Eastern Conference champions who overcame long odds to make it to the NBA Finals last year.

"We're chasing and looking up to that team because they've been there before," said Posey, who won a title with Miami in 2006. "This is nothing new to them. For us, it's still new as a whole. We're still learning and we're going to get it done."

Said Dulberg, "They don't have the familiarity, which is why they looked lost in the fourth quarter. The Big Three are afraid to step on each other's toes."

Dulberg also said the Celtics need mentally to treat road games as they would home games. In fact, he didn't think it would be a bad idea for the Celtics to bring their loved ones to Cleveland.

"The key to winning on the road is replicating what you do at home," Dulberg said. "To be able to practice the same way, go through the same routine, wear the same clothes. I'd send the girlfriends and wives on the road. No one complains when they're coming to the Garden from home after spending the night with their wife.

"If it works for home, why not the road games? The more familiar you are with something, the more comfortable you are and the better you play."

Goldberg was a sports psychology consultant for the University of Connecticut's 1999 men's basketball championship team and 2000 men's soccer champions. He also has worked with pro and Olympic athletes and wrote the book, "Sports Slump Busting," based on getting teams and individuals back on track. But even with his extensive background, he seemed confused by the Celtics' road problems.

"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me," Goldberg said. "This is a team with the best road record all season. Why in the playoffs do they start to struggle? If they weren't professionals, we could see it being more pressure on the road. But it doesn't make sense."

Said Garnett, "Home is where your heart is. You play in front of your family, your friends. The fans in Boston are absolutely nuts and they bring energy. When you are on the road, it's just you and your teammates, the coaching staff, personnel, that's it. Unless you're 'Pose' and you're from Cleveland, you don't have anybody rooting for you.

"There are a couple specks of green in the crowd. But it's called 'home-court advantage' for a reason. We don't take that real lightly."

During the regular season, the Celtics built a reputation for taking every opponent seriously, whether they were the reigning NBA champion Spurs or the struggling Knicks. But ever since they lost Game 3 in Atlanta against the eighth-seeded Hawks, who had a losing record this season, their focus has been questioned.

Coach Doc Rivers even said after the Game 4 loss at Cleveland that his team must play better "under stress" during the final stretches of games.

"All I can gather is they aren't focusing when they are playing away," Goldberg said. "They didn't win in Atlanta and they didn't do it with Cleveland. Their concentration, I don't know where that went. The only way I can explain them not playing to their potential is focus.

"There is nothing else that clearly jumps out at me. They should be used to playing away. They won in the past on the road. I'm puzzled."

Said Pierce: "I think we are pretty mentally tough guys . . . we can show how mentally tough we are going into Game 5."

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com.

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