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Ainge blasts Celtics' cavalier approach

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / February 27, 2010

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Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge placed the responsibility for Thursday’s lopsided loss to Cleveland and the club’s playoff fate on the starting lineup, which he said has failed to maintain focus in critical situations.

The Celtics owned an 8-point halftime lead before being outscored, 60-32, by the Cavaliers in the second half of a 108-88 drubbing at TD Garden. Boston has blown numerous double-digit leads this season, falling apart in third quarters. Thursday, the Celtics followed a porous third quarter with an even worse fourth, being outscored, 35-14, in that period.

Ainge blamed the starters, who combined for 21 points on 5-for-21 shooting after the break, for their lackadaisical second-half approach.

“It’s been a pattern that we have squandered leads against good teams in this league,’’ Ainge said yesterday. “I think the onus is on the starters. The good news is we are getting double-digit leads, but we are not doing a good enough job of finishing games.’’

The Celtics have consistently established big first-half leads, only to collapse in the third quarter. On Feb. 7 against Orlando, the Celtics were outscored, 36-11, in the third quarter and never recovered. The Cavaliers outscored the Celtics, 25-18, in the third, and Ainge said his starters are not bringing energy into the second half.

Ainge pointed out that Cleveland’s first four field goals of the third quarter were dunks or layups - an Anthony Parker dunk, Anderson Varejao and Mo Williams layups, and a LeBron James dunk. What’s more, eight of Cleveland 10 third-quarter field goals were inside of 7 feet.

“It’s been an issue, and the starters have to take the responsibility,’’ Ainge said. “They’ve been together, have experience, and it’s been a pattern the last month. We have to play with more urgency.’’

Lack of urgency was recognized as a problem months ago, but little has been done to rectify it. Said coach Doc Rivers following Thursday’s game: “There’s nothing I can do about [double-digit leads]. Obviously, I’d like to improve it. We’d like to be better. But we’re not right now, and we’ve just got to keep working on it. I know what we need to do. But one night it’ll be the defense, one night it’ll be the offense.’’

The Celtics took yesterday off and face the lowly Nets this afternoon at TD Garden. Paul Pierce has missed the last two games and Ainge said he was unsure whether his All-Star forward would play today or Tuesday against the Pistons.

The Celtics’ next major challenge comes March 14 in Cleveland.

“We were flat to start the third quarter again,’’ Ainge said of Thursday night’s game. “And it’s not like there are different players coming out for the second half. We have to play with more focus and commitment. It’s effort. It’s there to start the game and it’s up to the players.’’

Most disturbing about Thursday’s defeat was the performance of Varejao, who finished with 14 points, 10 points, 3 blocks, and 2 assists in 31 minutes.

“I thought the star of the game of them was Varejao,’’ said Rivers. “I thought he was absolutely amazing with his energy, with his defense. He kept the ball alive.’’

Ainge had a different opinion.

“Anderson Varejao’s effort, [the players] should be embarrassed,’’ he said.

When asked if age was an issue for a team with four 30-plus-year-old front-line players, Ainge said, “It’s not age. It’s on the starting five, and performing with the best [teams] hasn’t been happening. I’m not panicking. I am just saying that’s what it is.’’

Meanwhile, an NBA source said the Celtics are one of the teams interested in former Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who was bought out by the Wizards and will clear waivers this weekend. Ilgauskas, 34, is 7 feet 3 inches, possesses an above-average jumper, and had been a backup in Cleveland since Shaquille O’Neal’s arrival.

The Nuggets, Mavericks, and Hawks are also interested, although it appears Ilgauskas will return to Cleveland to play for his former team after the 30-day mandatory waiting period. Other teams could sign Ilgauskas immediately. Boston could use a dependable backup to Kendrick Perkins, and Ilgauskas has playoff experience.

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

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