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Dan Shaughnessy

Pursuit of glory is turning gory

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / January 8, 2009
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These Boston Celtics were going to be better than the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls or the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers. They were on their way to being the 2007 Patriots or even the 1972 Dolphins.

They were Ted Williams in 1941, Denny McLain in 1968. They were JFK in 1960 and the Beatles in 1964.

They were 27-2. They won 19 games in a row. They were going to challenge the 1971-72 Lakers, who won 33 straight.

The Celtics were almost as perfect as Mitt Romney's hair and Gisele Bundchen's profile. They were Philip Seymour Hoffman in every role of his life (which includes "Along Came Polly," his true tour de force).

Then they went to Los Angeles on Christmas Day and got pushed around by Pau Gasol and some other guys from the mean streets of Malibu. They haven't been the same since.

It's a legitimate slump. In the wake of last night's stunning 89-85 loss to the McGrady-less Rockets at the Garden, the Celtics have lost six of eight, and five of their last six road games. In that span, they lost three times to sub-.500 teams. They lost to the seven-man Knicks. The swagger went south. No mojo. A rookie Bobcat (D.J. Augustin) said that if you don't back down against the Celtics, "they kind of fold."

Ouch. No more talk about immortality. Or perfection. Suddenly, the Celtics aren't even the best team in the Eastern Confer ence of the NBA. If the playoffs started today, Boston would not have home-court advantage against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs are 18-0 at home and host the Celtics tomorrow night. Gulp.

Yeesh. What next? Tommy Heinsohn ripping the Green on Comcast? Lucky falling face-first on the fabled parquet? Doc Rivers going for a job interview with the New York Jets?

In these difficult days, we remember the words of Rivers during the winning streak. He kept telling us he wasn't satisfied. We thought he was being Belichickian. Turns out he was telling the truth about The Truth and Co.

"I kept saying, 'We're not playing well'; now you guys believe me," Rivers said last night. "You could see where the team was headed. And we're in it right now."

As always, there are multiple theories to explain the sudden slump. The Celtics are allowing too many easy baskets. They aren't hungry anymore. Rajon Rondo is playing like a 22-year-old (he is, in fact, only 22). They need another big. Kevin Garnett's numbers are down. Teams are gunning for the champs. The Celtics don't get enough scoring from the bench. They don't score enough points in the paint. They need Stephon Marbury. Too many days on the road. Too many jump shots. Or maybe Messrs. Garnett, Pierce, and Allen got confused and started to believe headlines about the Big Three in need of a government bailout.

"Teams are outhustling us and we're not coming up with the stops," Rondo said. "It starts with defense. We need to figure it out quickly. We're a very confident team, we're just not getting the job done."

The Celtics led by as many as 11 in the first half last night, but scored only 54 points in the final three quarters, and only 11 on 22 percent shooting in the fourth.

Rivers and Garnett think it's the law of averages as much as anything.

"A lot of balls are bounding around and going the other way," said the coach. "During the streak, we won games we had no business winning. Now we just have to trust each other and keep playing and things will work out."

"As of late, the basketball gods have been kind to others," said Garnett.

Boston led, 85-84, with 1:34 to play, but never scored again.

"With like 40 seconds left we had that last timeout and you could see in the eyes of the players, they were saying, 'We're going to lose a home game,' " said Rivers.

The Celtics fell to 18-2 at the Garden. Tomorrow they'll play a team that is 18-0 at home.

"Not a bad test for us," said Rivers.

"I think the confidence is still there," added Paul Pierce. "The great thing about this team is that we're together and no one's pointing fingers."

He means it. Fans and media might be a tad nervous, but the guys in the locker room are not worried. They've got a ton of experience and they've got a ring and they know how to fight through the NBA's midwinter blues.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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