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Time for some new math

These two must rescue Big Three

By Gary Washburn
March 15, 2010

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CLEVELAND — This is not some knee-jerk reaction, rather an assessment based on watching the Celtics closely for the past 65 games. We have waited for that 2008 team to return. We somehow believe that the harder Kevin Garnett slams his bald head against the basket support at TD Garden, the quicker he will return to vintage form.

Or the more rest Paul Pierce gets, the more often he will convert elbow jumpers and avoid shooting slumps, or the more clutch 3-pointers Ray Allen releases, the more they will go down.

None of this is going to happen. The Big Three are aging, which is not a Globe exclusive. We knew this. But how the Big Three are aging is what has the rest of the roster stunned and unsure how to move on after yesterday’s 104-93 loss to the Cavaliers.

The Big Three are limited, and those limitations are glaring. If Pierce doesn’t score, how does he contribute? If Garnett isn’t grabbing rebounds or hitting jumpers, does he block shots or stop his power forward counterpart? What happens when Allen’s shot is misfiring, does he get steals or chase down a long rebound or distribute the ball? Those answers are no, no, and no.

The Cavaliers possess the league’s most versatile player in LeBron James, who sparks his team not only with acrobatic dunks and buzzer-beating shots, but with the steal, tough rebound, or blocked shot from the blind side. His teammates are inspired by his hustle and therefore hustle themselves.

The job of a leader is to set an example, and Cleveland peppers opponents with its scrappiness, a term that hasn’t been used in Boston in a few years. The Celtics aren’t scrappy. They aren’t tough. They aren’t dirty. They are following the lead of their leaders, an aging bunch who only beat good teams when the circumstances are perfect.

They weren’t perfect yesterday. Garnett got into foul trouble. Pierce missed 6 of 7 shots in the first half. Allen missed 5 of 7. The Big Three sputtered as usual, but that didn’t prevent them from making game-changing plays. Garnett had no rebounds at halftime and allowed Anderson Varejao — the all-hustle, no-skills poster boy — score 15 points in 15 minutes. That is unacceptable. Pierce did little to respond when his shot wasn’t going down, but then again, age and injury limit the desire and ability to make those hustle plays.

James, 25, doesn’t have that problem. The Big Three, a combined 99 years old, do.

It’s easy to diagnose the problem, but there is a solution that may save the season. Other players need to assume the leadership mantle from the Big Three, because KG can’t get around like he used to, The Truth is not the frontline player he once was, and Allen can’t be relied upon to drop 30 on a consistent basis.

Kendrick Perkins is the Celtics’ truth serum. His doesn’t have the arrogance or bravado to believe things suddenly will heal themselves as some of his teammates and coaches do. He lives in Realityland, where he watches opposing teams repeatedly chase down loose balls and take charges and block shots.

It’s time for he and Rajon Rondo to assume more of the direction of the team because they have watched the Big Three fall short for too long.

“You just have to find it within,’’ Perkins said. “You can’t point fingers. You have to look in the mirror. There were a lot of things today we all messed up on. Just the effort plays.’’

When asked if it was time for him to take more of a commanding role, Perkins said, “I think maybe a different guy gotta try to step up and be a leader. I think sometimes you try to feed off your All-Stars, but maybe somebody else gotta step up. I’m talking about leading by example. One spark or positive energy on the court and guys tend to feed off that. Maybe it’s gotta be me, Rondo, ’Sheed, somebody.’’

If you have your list of potential leaders written down, let’s cross out Rasheed Wallace. A leader needs to produce, and the Rasheed we have seen throughout this season — effective about every four games — is what we’re going to get the next three years.

Rondo’s tongue is bleeding because he has been biting it so much trying to hide his disdain over the team’s inconsistency. He said yesterday that the Cavaliers are “on the same page. They didn’t shoot the ball well either and found a way to get the job done.’’

The issue is that Rondo, Perkins, Nate Robinson, Tony Allen, and Glen Davis are hesitant to assume more command because the Big Three still believe they can deliver as they did two years ago. The evidence shows they can’t.

So the younger core can either continue to watch as the Celtics get methodically broken down by hungrier and more athletic teams or decide to take more responsibility in their fate.

Coach Doc Rivers said feelings won’t be spared as he prepares the Celtics for the playoffs. Brian Scalabrine already has been phased out, and if the Celtics aren’t getting the proper leadership and spark from the Big Three, those accustomed to secondary roles have to leave their comfort zone and accept that their time is now.

That’s the only way the Celtics are going to change for the better.

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

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