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December swoon was in forecast

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / January 1, 2011

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We knew this was coming. The Celtics weren’t going to coast through the season, not with typical late-December boredom and myriad injuries — which necessitated placing hobbled point guard Rajon Rondo on the active list because there were three players more injured than he was.

It’s easy to blame the Celtics’ first swoon of the season on injuries. But yesterday’s 83-81 loss to the New Orleans Hornets is indicative of a team that’s out of synch and going through bouts of complacency.

A prime example was Paul Pierce, who followed his 33-point performance Wednesday against the Pistons with a docile 12 yesterday. He took just 10 shots, committed six turnovers, and missed all four of his 3-point attempts.

On the game’s final play, he was supposed to orchestrate a pick-and-roll with Ray Allen but was stripped of the ball and threw a hurried pass to Allen, whose 21-footer clanged off the back of the rim. And when Chris Paul grabbed the rebound with 4.6 seconds left, nobody bothered to foul him so he took a dribble and fired the ball toward the other basket, burning the final seconds.

The calf muscle injury to Kevin Garnett has the Celtics reeling because their past seven quarters of basketball without him have been putrid. It’s evident they are a different team defensively. Yesterday they were unable to stop the pick-and-rolls between Paul and David West and Emeka Okafor. Paul repeatedly went to the same play and repeatedly watched West or Okafor spring open.

And Glen Davis, who said Wednesday he was prepared to fill Garnett’s role, missed 10 shots, including a 3-pointer with 1:13 left when the Celtics only needed a 2-point basket. Davis has attempted seven 3-pointers all season.

These struggles shouldn’t be surprising. Very few teams coast through a season with no setbacks or speed bumps. So far this season, Miami seemed about to trade LeBron James and fire Erik Spoelstra, Orlando feared it would break the 76ers’ record for fewest wins in a season, and the Lakers were only good enough to fight for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

All of these were obvious overreactions to slumps. It’s difficult to remain fresh and motivated throughout an 82-game season. The Celtics played an emotional game Wednesday night, traveled back to Boston early Thursday morning with no practice time, and then tipped off against the Hornets at 3 p.m.

This team is tired and frustrated because the injuries have robbed it of chemistry and rhythm, and the Celtics have to fight over the next few weeks to get that back.

“Injuries are going to happen,’’ Pierce said. “Regardless of the injuries, we still have to show up to play. There are no moral victories. And the guys that we put out there have to be ready. We are on our home court with guys who know how to play the game and a game we feel like we should win.

“Paul Pierce has to do a better job of stepping up his game. I really didn’t come to play today. It’s evident when you look up. Six turnovers but we only lose by 2, the responsibility are on the guys on the floor.’’

Pierce seemed distracted yesterday, and on most nights Garnett or Rondo can pick him up. He doesn’t need to be a dominant scorer, but against the Hornets, that’s exactly what the Celtics needed.

When asked why he wasn’t as sharp as normal, Pierce paused and said, “I don’t need to turn the ball over six times. I really take pride in that and you know there’s no excuse for that. I have to do a better job in the offense, being more aggressive, being able to open things up for other players. I have to do a better job night in and night out. I’ll take a lot of the heat for the things that went on today. No excuses.’’

Coach Doc Rivers offered no excuses, either. Remember, he called this a few weeks ago when he said his team wasn’t improving during a 14-game winning streak.

The Celtics got by on talent and execution down the stretch to win some uncomfortable games — including two wins over the downtrodden 76ers.

Coaches are usually the first to know these things. Lack of practice time makes teams stale and winning can make them complacent. Blend those two and you have the Celtics at 24-7, the best record in the Eastern Conference but getting by on reputation and experience.

How can they extinguish this swoon? The Celtics have to go back to their scrappy ways, starting tomorrow night in Toronto. They can no longer view themselves as the class of the East, but a team that has slipped and is seeking redemption.

Rivers can preach incessantly about avoiding contentment, but only disappointing losses really get through to most successful teams.

And the past two games would constitute disappointing losses. So now it’s time for the players to react.

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

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