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Some bad habits resurface

Inconsistency still the major problem

LeBron James had a bounce-back game, scoring 38 points, but also wanted a foul called here. LeBron James had a bounce-back game, scoring 38 points, but also wanted a foul called here. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 8, 2010

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What a pathetic way to lose home-court advantage. The Celtics were slapped back into reality last night by the suddenly efficient and extremely motivated Cleveland Cavaliers, who displayed why they were so heavily favored to win this series.

The Cavaliers snatched back the momentum of the series — and their aura — with a brilliant performance in the 124-95 win. Donned in their wine-colored throwbacks, the Cavaliers used 21 first-quarter points from LeBron James while his cohorts canned the open jumpers they missed in the first two games in Cleveland.

There was a reason James was so relaxed following the Game 2 loss that he should have worn his cigar jacket. Unlike past Cleveland teams, James is supremely confident in this squad. The talk the past three days centered not only around James’s injured right elbow but the shattering of the Cavaliers’ supposed invincibility.

The Celtics dominated the first two games and could have walked away with a 2-0 lead. The Cavaliers appeared lucky to win Game 1 and because the NBA public seemed to have lost confidence in the Cavaliers’ ability to cruise to the Finals, they felt slighted.

The psychology of a playoff series is as fascinating as the basketball that creates the mental chess match. The Cavaliers made significant strides with their effort last night because they sent the Celtics back to their insecure ways.

A team that had no idea how it would play from one game to the next during the regular season is at it again in the playoffs. Two weeks worth of consistency was shattered by one shabby performance. Despite three days off, the Celtics were a step slower. Coach Doc Rivers acknowledged that the last two days of practice had been “lousy’’ and the injuries to Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett did nothing to help the cohesiveness.

Boston was good enough to go 5-2 in its first seven playoff games and an argument can be made that the Celtics could have been 7-0. But no case can be made for last night’s effort because the Celtics played to lose. They were foolish enough to believe that TD Garden would provide a distinct advantage — it didn’t during the regular season — and last night was eerily reminiscent of the 108-88 drubbing by Cleveland here Feb. 25.

Cavaliers coach Mike Brown astutely ripped into his team following Game 2, blaming everybody for the loss except Craig Ehlo. And that put his team on edge and on alert.

So now the onus is on the Celtics to retaliate or fold, and Game 3 exemplified how quickly the mental edge can change in a playoff series. Two days ago the Celtics were back to their 2008 ways. Now they are a bunch of old guys who exhausted themselves with their Game 2 victory and are primed for quick elimination.

Wasn’t this series supposed to go seven? Weren’t the Celtics supposed to expose all of Cleveland’s weaknesses with their experience and guile? The difference between now and 2008 is that these Celtics can’t do anything positive in consecutive games, there always has to be some self-created adversity mixed in the equation.

“I think we just let our guard down,’’ forward Paul Pierce said, having perhaps his worst playoff series since the Big Three were formed. “I think when you come home and you got Game 3 in your home building after taking care of business on the road, you’ve got to come with a better sense of urgency. You’ve got to know the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to come in here with all the urgency in the world. Terrible loss, you know, it was embarrassing to tell the truth.’’

So a team whose mental strength and desire have been questioned all season is facing another major challenge in tomorrow’s Game 4. The Cavaliers cruised most of the regular season and sleepwalked through their series with the Chicago Bulls. They beat the Bulls in five with a half-hearted effort that carried into the Boston series.

Brown’s stunning criticism mixed with James’s calmness somehow bonded the Cavaliers on the road. And they have no fear of playing in Boston after winning two of the past three meetings here and nearly coming close to rallying from a 22-point deficit the third time.

It seemed the Celtics made few if any adjustments from Game 2, as if an identical game plan would work against a Cleveland club that spent the past three days watching more game tape than Bill Belichick. They depended too much on Rajon Rondo, didn’t use any fresh ways to get Ray Allen open, and practically ignored rebounding. It was a lazy response in a critical series and now the Celtics have to attempt to get their vigor back in practice, a tough assignment for an uneven practice team.

So now the pressure shifts to the Celtics, whose warts were exposed last night. The title team bounced back from disappointing defeats; this team has yet to even come close to matching the toughness of its predecessor. It will have to tomorrow.

“There is nothing that I can look at or take from it because obviously I can take the lack of aggression we had on display tonight,’’ Allen said. “I can take that and say that [tomorrow] we have to be the bulldozer.’’

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

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