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Mental lapses are proving to be a real headache

Fourth-quarter turnovers by the Celtics spoiled Doc Rivers’s West Coast trip. Fourth-quarter turnovers by the Celtics spoiled Doc Rivers’s West Coast trip. (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / December 30, 2009

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OAKLAND, Calif. - Those expecting the Celtics to pick up where they left off in June 2008 with a healthy Kevin Garnett have been exposed to a potentially dominant team with several obvious blemishes.

How else do you explain four of the Celtics’ seven losses coming to teams with a combined record of 39-80? In two nights, the Celtics revived the seasons of two downtrodden Western Conference teams because of their inept play in the fourth quarter.

Victories over the Celtics improve résumés. Victories over the Celtics keep coaches off the hot seat and appease impatient general managers. But what these GMs need to realize is that this Celtics team is not the elite team it was believed to be in November.

While the Celtics can be downright impressive in stretches, they are not impressive often enough for a team that hopes to play deep into June. Take Monday night at Golden State. The Celtics led the Warriors, 35-17, in the first quarter, and Golden State looked lethargic and uninterested.

Golden State scored a whopping 86 points in the final three quarters and earned a 103-99 win, annoying Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who was quick to point out his team’s issues.

“I think it’s a combination of we’re getting some pretty good performances by other teams and we’re not playing as hard as we can play for 48 minutes,’’ he said. “We think we can show up for a quarter or a half, and that’s not good enough in this league, and that’s been our pattern. We come out of the gates ready to play and have shown up to play in some cases. Other cases we haven’t; we’ve had to turn it on in the second half.

“That’s the fear I had at the beginning of the season - play it out and wait for the playoffs to roll around and not bringing it night in and night out. This is the second stretch where we really haven’t really shown up. The urgency of winning from the get-go hasn’t been important enough.’’

Mentally - and that’s 90 percent of how NBA games are won - the Celtics had the Warriors defeated. All that was required was basic execution for the final three quarters. But with tired bodies on the second game of a back-to-back stretch, Paul Pierce sitting in his Waltham home trying not to kick the television with his healing right leg, and the offense depending solely on Rajon Rondo, the Celtics faltered.

After the first quarter, the Celtics were 26 for 56 from the field with 22 turnovers. Basketball isn’t a numbers game like baseball, but even the most casual fan realizes that having nearly as many turnovers as baskets is not a good thing.

The issue is how the turnovers were committed. It was C.J. Watson reading Rondo’s eyes like Darrelle Revis on Tom Brady. Rondo, sometimes in his stubbornness and arrogance, attempts to insult the intelligence of opposing defenses by daring them, and he paid for that.

“Just carelessness,’’ Ainge said. “The turnovers, the 25 [total] turnovers. That is just unacceptable. And that just goes to show that focus just isn’t there.

“I see stretches in most games we play where we are playing really good basketball but we’re trying to cruise through other stretches where we think the game might be under control. We don’t respect our opponent quite enough and we let up a little bit and we’re sloppy.

“We take bad shots. We make bad passes. We blow defensive assignments and the focus just isn’t there for 48 minutes.’’

Ray Allen is a marvelous outside shooter, but the Celtics are depending too much on him to produce instant offense with 3-pointers. His 35.4 percent 3-point clip is a career low, and his projected 139 makes would be his fewest in 11 years. So the question is, how long do the Celtics rely on Allen to produce big outside shots down the stretch? It hasn’t worked the past two games without Pierce.

Garnett is going to have his lulls coming off major knee surgery. Following a splendid five-game stretch in early December - 75 percent shooting and 21.6 points per game - Garnett has seen his numbers drop to 51.1 and 13.9 in the past eight.

Against Golden State, Garnett was being constantly harassed in the post; teams are now hip to his outside-shooting prowess, and he has to make adjustments.

“I have to do a better job of consolidating the ball,’’ he said. “I know I can do that. I think at this point everybody is going to look at themselves in the mirror and do what they can to get ready for Phoenix. I can do a lot more and I will.’’

The entire team needs to reevaluate itself and be more consistent. Eddie House has to do other things besides hitting the occasional 3-pointer. Kendrick Perkins can’t keep brooding during games and picking up needless technicals. And Rivers needs to open up his bench and allow Bill Walker and J.R. Giddens to perhaps infuse energy into a team that becomes uninterested during prosperity.

It is difficult to believe that the veteran Celtics are sometimes mentally unfocused, but with the long-term goal being another championship, they have a tendency to stumble with short-term challenges. These two losses may cost them a playoff seed and home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference finals. Mental lapses are inexcusable on a team with three Hall of Famers. The Celtics, as we all are, are perplexed by their behavior.

“We’re an older team, a veteran team, so some of the things we’re doing we know better,’’ said Garnett. “We need some practice time and work on some things and I am sure we’ll get better. There’s got to be more grit. I feel like we’re playing hard, but there has to be more grit.’’

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