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Celtics better have better half

KEVIN GARNETT Health a big issue KEVIN GARNETT
Health a big issue
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / February 16, 2010

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. - So the Celtics won’t win 72 games and won’t coast to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Kevin Garnett isn’t completely healthy. Rasheed Wallace isn’t the answer off the bench. Ray Allen isn’t the 3-point shooter he once was and the bench doesn’t produce as it did two years ago.

The first 50 games for the Celtics have been an adventure to say the least, a lesson in patience and a testament to the fact that dominant on paper means little in the reality of the NBA.

The season began in bizarre fashion when Glen Davis broke his right thumb in a fight with a friend just two days before the season began. He missed 27 games because of the thumb.

Injuries have clouded the Celtics’ ability to dominate the East, but yet they began the season 23-5. Boston blew away opponents in the early going. The Celtics punished teams defensively. Rajon Rondo emerged quickly into a star. Garnett didn’t look like vintage KG in the first two months, but he did produce.

What the first 28 games did is create delusions of grandeur for the players who believed 2009-10 would pan out just as 2007-08 did. What’s more, the Celtics thought their prowess from the championship season would just reappear and didn’t work to improve obvious weaknesses despite the early victories.

They were shooting far too many 3-pointers. They weren’t rebounding (they are 29th in the NBA). There were defensive lapses, and Rondo was an erratic and sometimes uninterested free throw shooter. Teams were intimidated by the Celtics in the first six weeks, but a 92-90 loss to the Clippers Dec. 27 in Los Angeles changed the course of the season.

The Celtics haven’t been the same since Baron Davis’s buzzer-beating jumper defeated them that night. They began showing the characteristics that have plagued them the past two months. They were unable to put away an inferior team. They had several defensive breakdowns, including leaving Rasual Butler, one of the league’s most scary 3-point shooters, for a late tying shot in that loss.

That was an unacceptable miscue and those became more prevalent - as did injuries. One game later, Garnett was kicked in his surgically repaired knee by Monta Ellis and missed 10 games. Paul Pierce needed minor surgery to clean out an infection in his right knee. Rondo tweaked his hamstring.

Blame the injuries or just plain lack of execution, but the Celtics haven’t been the same since that late-December meltdown. They have struggled with losing teams, couldn’t put away teams they had down, and experienced mysterious issues with third-quarter execution. That has lasted right down to their most recent loss, when New Orleans trounced them, 29-12, in the third en route to a 93-85 victory over Boston Feb. 10.

The Celtics are gaining the reputation as a front-running team that can’t polish off opponents. That was never an issue in 2007-08.

“I thought a lot of that had a lot to do with Kevin being hurt, Paul being hurt,’’ coach Doc Rivers said last night. “That probably had more to do with throwing us off rhythm, but when they came back, we never got our rhythm back. We’re healthy now, but now we have to get our rhythm back and get back to what we were doing before we broke camp.’’

Garnett comes off the books in 2012 and there was an assumption the trio could compete for an NBA title for two or three more seasons.

“We started a lot of goal-setting, this year was no different,’’ Garnett said. “Obviously when we started we wanted to play better on the road and I thought for the most part we did that. But I think overall we [didn’t reach] some other goals. And usually, or since I’ve been here, when we start the second half of games is when we make our mark and start distancing ourselves between teams and it’s just about energy . . . we have to get back to that. We’re a better team than that.’’

The recent struggles have created a sense of urgency because changes could be on the horizon.

Eddie House, Tony Allen, and Brian Scalabrine are all impending free agents. Ray Allen’s $19 million expiring contract is enticing to teams looking to slide under the salary cap with perhaps a younger chip to offer the Celtics in return.

Team president Danny Ainge is determined not to allow the Celtics to grow old and insignificant, as happened with the previous Big Three.

“You remember it, break it down, understand what you’ve been doing right and been doing wrong, and instead of half a season, we look at it like a whole new ballgame,’’ Pierce said. “A fresh start. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.’’

But for the Celtics to finish how they envisioned in October, there need to be major changes. They players need to emphasize defense, not just one or two solid defensive possessions. Rivers needs to use the bench more extensively, especially Tony Allen and Bill Walker. Ainge needs to acquire a backup point guard to relieve Rondo.

Marquis Daniels is not a point guard. House can’t handle the ball nor guard speedy point guards, with his struggles against New Orleans’s Darren Collison last week a prime example.

The Celtics trail the Cavaliers by nine games for the top spot in the East, so the goal should be to catch Orlando for second, which would prevent a matchup with the Cavaliers until the conference final.

“What Boston needs to do is avoid Cleveland for as long as they can,’’ a rival executive said. “And then hope the Cavaliers don’t play as well or have injuries or whatever.

“[The Celtics] still have the talent to win the title, but things just have to work out in their favor. They definitely didn’t for them in the first half.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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