THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

After another Garden loss, they have no defense

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / January 19, 2010

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This, too, shall pass. That I know.

The Celtics lost at home again last night, this time to the Dallas Mavericks. The score was 99-90, and that makes three home L’s in a row. The Celtics are 4-7 since peaking at 23-5 with that uplifting Pierce-less Christmas Day victory in Orlando.

They’ll come out of this. I swear. And if you don’t believe me, listen to the coach.

“We’ll get it right,’’ said Doc Rivers. “We just have to keep working at it.’’

There’s no mystery where the problem lies. The Celtics shot 56 percent from the floor in taking a 50-41 halftime lead. That’s before the Mavericks hit them with a 16-for-20 third-quarter assault, going from 5 down at 65-60 to 7 up (75-68) after three and eventually leading by as many as 18 (93-75). And while Dirk Nowitzki was putting on a scintillating show (14-for-22, with 22 of his 37 coming in the second half) what concerned Rivers was not the virtuoso exploits of the oft-unguardable 7-foot German with the feathery touch and the extensive post-up repertoire as much as the layups and dunks generated by a relentless Jason Kidd-fueled fast break.

“In the second half,’’ Rivers said, “our defense was horrendous. I don’t think we got back at all.’’

The Captain agreed.

“We’ve got to show some consistency defensively,’’ said Paul Pierce. “We are a defensive team first. That’s something that’s never going to change around here. Right now we are playing in spurts defensively.’’

The Celtics have lost their defensive mojo, and the immediate thought is to blame that on the absence of Kevin Garnett, who a) would have guarded Nowitzki and b) would not have stood for the lackadaisical attitude displayed by the five guys who started for the Celtics in the third quarter, of whom Rivers said, “I thought we came out relaxed and thought Dallas was going to go away.’’

Of course, they weren’t, not after embarrassing themselves, the organization, and the entire US of A in a miserable Sunday performance north of the border. The Mavs went down without a fight to the Toronto Raptors, losing by a 22 that felt like 122. No way they were going to be mailing this one in, especially since their owner is front and center at just about every Mavericks game. Another stinkeroo like the one in Toronto and Mark Cuban might have been making a personnel move or two.

Rivers wants it made clear that it’s not all about KG.

“I’m not worried about Kevin,’’ he declared. “You know what I’m saying? I mean, he’s not in right now and everybody else is. And they know their jobs. The voice of Kevin, yeah, it always helps, because he holds everyone accountable. But that voice isn’t out there right now and somebody else has to do it.’’

“I can’t really read heads on what’s going on,’’ added Pierce. “We’ve been without Kevin; we won games last year. That’s not an excuse.’’

There is no, for lack of a better description, legitimate sense of urgency with the Celtics at the present time. The 11-0, 14-of-15 spurt in November and December gave them a comfortable division lead. Since that 23-5 peak they’ve been a little soft in the head collectively, especially at home. Right now they have lost two more games at home than they have on the road and nobody does that. Maybe they’re intimidated by all the pregame history stuff on the big screen. Maybe they don’t like the music. Whatever it is, something’s going on.

“Teams are coming into our building and we feel like we should win in our building, and we are not doing a good enough job of protecting home court, having pride, playing with enough toughness at home,’’ said Pierce. “We should carry our home court with a lot more pride and toughness, and we are just not doing that right now.’’

Let the record show that once the Mavs took the lead on a 69-68 jumper by Nowitzki, who was then in the midst of scoring 9 consecutive Dallas points, the Celtics meekly submitted, never coming closer than 4 (77-73, 79-75) in the final 14-plus minutes.

They’re better than this. They have to be. But the larger truth is that we have yet to see the true 2009-2010 Boston Celtics, the team with the strong first five and the second unit that includes Glen Davis and Marquis Daniels, who have yet to play a game together. It’s been one injury after another, which is hardly surprising when you consider that four of their first six players are 32 or older. Right now the best anyone can do is fantasize about what life will be like when Doc has the full roster at his disposal.

But it is pretty ugly right now. They can’t sustain anything defensively, allowing both Atlanta and Dallas to steamroll them in the second half after they had played sound, intelligent basketball the first 24 minutes.

“I thought the game plan in the first half was perfect,’’ said Rivers. “Get back in transition, contest shots, and start in-and-out.’’

The second half? Not exactly perfect.

“They had numbers every single time,’’ Rivers said. “We had our guards crashing the glass . . . our bigs complaining to refs . . . they beat us down the floor and they scored . . . so I thought we had 24 minutes of focus, and it’s tough to win a game that way against a quality team.’’

Some day there will be a Celtics team I’ll like, you’ll like, and even Doc will like. It won’t be on display tomorrow night in Detroit, but it will materialize some day. They will win another home game before the season is out, by golly. That’s a promise.

“I don’t think it’s a pattern, except that we’re playing poorly at home right now,’’ Rivers said. “And we have to fix that. And we will. But when will be the question.’’

The Big Picture is what matters. It’s not about January. It’s about April, May and, the Hoop God willing, June. Keep telling yourself that and try to believe it.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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