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Nets 104, Celtics 96

New low: Nets cut down Celtics

A shocking loss to NBA’s worst

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / February 28, 2010

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You assumed the scent of the smelling salts would come at some point.

When the New Jersey Nets erased the 12-2 lead the Celtics jumped to, forcing turnovers that led to easy buckets, beating the Celtics to rebounds, and getting to the foul line time after time to take a 29-27 first-quarter lead, you assumed the Celtics would respond.

When Yi Jianlian hustled to keep a Keyon Dooling miss alive, then Brook Lopez scrapped for another offensive rebound, converting the putback for a 46-36 second-quarter lead, you figured the Celtics would get the message - especially with the unfamiliar sound of boos raining down at TD Garden.

When Courtney Lee responded to a 5-point burst by Nate Robinson by drilling an 18-footer - then putting his finger to his mouth to shush the crowd - you thought the Celtics would feel the lowly Nets poking at them with a stick.

You thought that at some point in this 104-96 loss to the Nets - a team that, at 6-52, is threatening to finish with the worst record in NBA history - the Celtics would wake up. But by the time they did, it was too late.

“I don’t know how many wake-up calls we need, really,’’ said Kendrick Perkins (2 points, 2 rebounds). “We done got a few this year.’’

Coming off their most lopsided loss of the season, 108-88 to Cleveland Thursday, the Celtics took what will likely be their most embarrassing defeat yesterday, falling to a woeful Nets team on a home court they’ve struggled to protect all year (16-11).

Coach Doc Rivers was at a loss to explain it.

“It’s just a mind-set that we’ve really struggled getting them out of,’’ he said. “It’s just a team that’s absolutely relaxed, and that’s on me. So I’ve got to keep working.

With the reality setting in that they could join Charlotte, Chicago, New York, and the Clippers as the only teams to lose to New Jersey this season, the Celtics made an 18-8 charge fueled by Kevin Garnett, who score 10 of his season-high 26 points in the fourth quarter.

But at that point, all the Nets had to do was hold them at bay, keep them at arm’s length by getting to the free throw line, where they were 34 of 41 (compared with the Celtics going just 9 of 11).

Behind Lopez (25 points, 7 rebounds), Lee (21 points before spraining his left ankle), and Devin Harris (23 points, 5 assists), the Nets set the intensity level and dared the Celtics to match it.

“You get a team that’s desperate and has a chance to win and beat us, they came to life,’’ Rivers said.

They found that life early in the first quarter when Rajon Rondo (13 points and a career-high 17 assists) went to the bench with two fouls in just four minutes. In the second quarter, with Rivers sitting his starters, the Nets seized on the opportunity, forcing the Celtics to shoot 7 of 19 and going up by double digits.

“We had that sense that we’ll get back into it,’’ Rivers said.

They got within 6 when Ray Allen drilled a 3-pointer from the corner, but they didn’t get any closer.

“Those are the basketball gods punishing you,’’ Rivers told his players. “You have no right to get back in this game.’’

With back-to-back losses on their home floor, the Celtics seem to have lost the momentum they gained by winning four of their first five after the All-Star break.

As a team with championship ambitions, losing to one of the league’s lowliest stings.

“Nobody wants to lose to the team that’s the worst in the league right now,’’ said Robinson. “But they came out fighting and competing.

But losing focus, relaxing, and expecting to be able to get back into the game says more about these Celtics than anything else, according to the coach.

“It ain’t the system, it’s our heads,’’ Rivers said. “It’s between our ears. And we’ve got to come out and play.’’

The players could do nothing but agree.

“Doc gives us direction,’’ Garnett said. “Guys have to go out there and follow the plan and execute. That’s all it is.’’

Rasheed Wallace added, “We can’t sit up here and say, ‘Oh, it’s Doc’s fault that we lost.’ Or ‘Doc’s not doing this’ or ‘Doc’s not doing that.’

“Doc’s not on the floor. It’s the five guys that’s out there. So we have to come up with ways to win.’’

Searching for more answers to the same questions, Ray Allen paused long and hard, staring over the heads of the media members before coming up with a response.

“I’m not concerned,’’ Allen said. “I’m disappointed.’’

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