THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Celtics welcome a needed break

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / February 12, 2010

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DALLAS - The Celtics go into the All-Star break surrounded by doubts and questions. A 93-85 loss in New Orleans Wednesday served to magnify the problems, as it was the second successive game in which they utterly collapsed for a long stretch of the third quarter.

After the game, the players were talking about regrouping after what will be nearly a week off (the next game is in Sacramento Tuesday). And coach Doc Rivers has been anticipating this road trip “because it will tell us who we really are.’’ But, judging by recent performances, the Celtics might not want to have their true identity revealed.

The Celtics have been trying to sort themselves out since late December; they have gone 9-13 after winning 23 of their first 28 games. Asked about the difficulties, point guard Rajon Rondo replied, “I don’t have the answer right now. If I did, it would probably be solved. But it’s the same thing, the same problem each game.

“I can only speak for myself. I’ve just got to do a better job leading the team, keep watching myself and trying to improve. It’s definitely both ends. Set the tone defensively, and offensively, do a better job running our sets. The ball is getting stagnant. We’re not running the same sets as the first half, we’re not running them the same way.’’

Defensively, the Celtics are seldom putting together five-plus successive stops at the start of quarters, which became their trademark in the previous two seasons. In the past, they would come out after halftime with the express purpose of shutting down opponents, and would do just that, methodically going on 10-0 runs and taking command.

The Celtics are also losing their way tactically out of timeouts in the late going. Instead of preventing 3-point attempts while protecting leads against the Clippers and Magic, they allowed open shots to Rasual Butler and J.J. Redick that overturned almost-certain victories.

The Celtics made a similar mistake against the Bulls in the playoffs last year, with Paul Pierce leaving Ben Gordon open. After that, Pierce and his teammates made a concerted effort not to repeat the error, but the lesson apparently has not stuck.

The fact that the Celtics are getting advantages and often displaying a high assist-to-field goal ratio, the offense indicates all is not lost. On defense, they lead the league in points against (93.7) and are sixth in opponents’ field goal percentage (.444).

But there is real concern about the Celtics’ half-court game. If they are not getting defensive stops, there are no “easy baskets’’ in transition. And their half-court sets, based on the simplicity of going to the post with the first pass, have become stale.

The Celtics have topped 100 points 21 times, but only once in the last 13 games. As inconsistent as the defense has become, the team has surrendered more than 100 points only once (a 107-102 win over Miami) since Jan. 11. Except for the Suns, no team has been able to completely shred the Boston defense for an entire game; but teams such as Atlanta and Orlando are explosive enough for one or two strong offensive quarters to carry them through to victory.

“It’s defensive, but it’s also offensively, not putting the ball in the hoop,’’ Rondo said. “It’s way more difficult when a defense is set to get transition buckets. Most of their guys are back, you’re taking the ball out of the net, it’s hitting the ground, bouncing on the floor, you turn around and get the ball up the floor and guys are pretty much set in this league.’’

At their best, the Celtics are still a championship contender. They breezed through the first few weeks of the season, easily handling a Hornets team with Chris Paul. But they are clearly not optimizing their personnel now, the loss to the Paul-less Hornets only the latest example.

“I like us when we’re right; we’ve just got to be right,’’ Rivers said. “It’s not just work ethic and it’s not disappointing; it’s called the season. It happens to everybody. Some teams are better at it than others. It’s part of the process of learning to be a championship team.’’

The Celtics ended last season on a discouraging note, getting blown out at home by Orlando. But when they emerged from training camp, they might have been the best-prepared team in the league. Kevin Garnett was rejuvenated after knee surgery and newcomers Marquis Daniels, Rasheed Wallace, and Shelden Williams provided a spark.

The team is hoping the All-Star break provides a similar opportunity to recover. Daniels and Glen Davis have returned from injury. The Celtics also have an open roster spot with the trade deadline looming (next Thursday).

“Everybody needs a break, for sure,’’ center Kendrick Perkins said. “We need to put 48 minutes together. In the third quarter, it’s been tough. We’ve just got to find a way to get over it.

“Right now, we just need a break. It’s really our first time with our full team. Now we’ve got our full team. We’ve got to learn to put guys in the right spot, put it all together. I think we’ll be OK.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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