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They lack KO punch

Ray Allen had a big hand in Boston’s win, scoring 20 points, and rejecting this Amir Johnson shot in the third quarter. Ray Allen had a big hand in Boston’s win, scoring 20 points, and rejecting this Amir Johnson shot in the third quarter. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / November 28, 2009

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The Celtics’ path to the postseason and perhaps back to the NBA Finals is going to be more challenging than it was in 2008. What’s more, the past week should serve as a reminder that fans should cease comparisons of the current squad and that world championship club.

Through 16 games, the Celtics have scuffled their way to a 12-4 record, tied with Orlando and Atlanta for the best record in the East. Their victories, including last night’s 116-103 decision over the Toronto Raptors at TD Garden, have lacked the grace, ease, and precision of two years ago.

Of Boston’s 66 wins in 2007-08, 45 were by 10 or more points and 23 by 20 or more points. That team won 29 of its first 32 games and blitzed opponents with a defensive presence that led to large early margins and comfortable victories.

Last night was a prime example of how difficult a 13-point victory can be. The Celtics played little defense in the first half, allowing Toronto to shoot nearly 67 percent in taking a 55-54 lead. Boston began by hitting 12 of its first 13 shots but it meant nothing because Toronto countered with dribble penetration and 3-pointers.

Soaking in coach Doc Rivers’s defensive philosophy is going to take time for these Celtics. Point guards are getting into the paint at will. The Celtics are giving up open 3-pointers and mid-range jump shots. And when there are misses, athletic guards are flying over the Celtics’ frontline for putbacks. On one occasion, rookie DeMar DeRozan glided over Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, and Rasheed Wallace for a tip dunk, and the three Celtics looked at each other befuddled.

And then there are stretches like the third quarter, when the Celtics moved quickly around screens, put hands in faces, forced jump shooters to drive and drivers to take jump shots. Toronto shot just 35 percent in that period, allowing the Celtics to seize the lead and hold on.

At this point, even home games against inferior teams are challenging because the Celtics are so inconsistent.

“At halftime, I said, ‘The first team that plays defense wins, guys,’ ’’ Rivers said. “And, the third quarter, we were terrific.

“I don’t know what we are,’’ the coach continued. “I do think over the last two or three games, we’re improving . . . we now go on the road and it’s going to be a tough test.’’

The 2007-08 Celtics relished playing on the road, but a four-game trip to Miami, Charlotte, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City will be an arduous test for a team that has had trouble putting together consistent 48-minute efforts.

“We’ve just got to keep improving guys,’’ Rivers said. “I read an article about Phil Jackson talking about the Lakers and saying [they’re] not a 48-minute team and [they’re] not ready yet. I don’t think anybody is saying [their team is] ready . . . I would say if you polled all the coaches and asked them if you are ready for the playoffs, very few of them would say yes.’’

The Celtics are having trouble putting teams away and there could be various theories for that deficiency. Boston may be a team that can only dominate in stretches, which has been the case through the first 16 games.

We have waited to see the Celtics put an opponent away with ease in the first half and cruise to victory, as they did with opening-week wins over Charlotte and Chicago. That was supposed to be the norm, because that is the Celtics team we are accustomed to watching in the new Big Three Era.

But an overtime win against a Knicks team whose desire has been questioned, a 3-point victory against an undermanned Sixers club, and now a more-difficult-than-expected victory against the Raptors is evidence that this Celtics team is not Mike Tyson circa 1988. Instead of punishing early blows that take the heart out of opponents, the Celtics are a team that will methodically pound you and win by decision.

The Big Three, along with Wallace, are still talented enough to beat most teams but may not have the potency of two years ago. This is a different team, and while most NBA insiders expected Boston to take on the same characteristics of 2007-08 with a healthy Garnett and a rejuvenated Wallace, they are forming a distinct personality.

The Celtics’ average margin of victory two years ago was 10.2 points. This year, it’s 8.7 and that includes a combined 92-point margin in wins over Charlotte, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

“Doc always tells us quit trying to have an ‘on and off’ switch and just have an ‘on’ switch,’’ Perkins said.

“Teams are coming at us. They are locked in. They are playing the Celtics. Obviously every team wants to show us up and make it a statement game so we just got to learn to, when teams are hitting crazy shots and playing outside their body, sometimes we just got learn to keep sticking together, taking the first blow and keep bouncing back. But it will be nice to start delivering the blow instead of keep pounding.’’

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