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On basketball

Lately, not too good late

Closing out games is now a problem

Rajon Rondo hit just 5 of 14 shots, scoring 12 points. Rajon Rondo hit just 5 of 14 shots, scoring 12 points. (Elsa/Getty Images)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / February 11, 2011

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Turns out Monday’s loss to Charlotte wasn’t as much a byproduct of playing the second game of a back-to-back as it was the Celtics being undisciplined on offense.

The Lakers turned the Celtics into a jump-shooting team in the second half of their 92-86 win at TD Garden last night and the results were ghastly.

The Celtics have not lost more than two games in a row this season but that could change Sunday against the Heat, a team that will have no concern about Boston’s lack of depth or its offensive ineptitude late in games.

For the third time in the last four games, the Celtics were putrid in the fourth quarter. Their last three losses — to Dallas, Charlotte, and Los Angeles — have come by a combined 15 points, and in the fourth quarter of those games they converted just 21 of 59 shots (36 percent).

A team that prides itself on closing out games has forgotten that late, and it’s costing them. The Celtics don’t want to face a Game 7 in South Florida knowing that making a couple of more shots in the fourth quarter against Charlotte could have meant playing it at the Garden.

As imperfect as the Celtics are, we don’t expect them to blow a 15-point first-half lead or be outscored, 10-0, in the first 1:42 of the second half at home. The Ray Allen celebration was emotional, but the Celtics should have matched that moment with inspired play and didn’t. And that dampened the occasion.

Opposing teams are learning how to defend the Celtics in the second half: plug up the middle, send defenders to create double teams, and use Boston’s unselfishness against it. When Kevin Garnett turns into a scorer, the Celtics are usually successful. Last night he was timid, attempting to will his shots into the basket instead of using his touch. He looked frightened at times by the Lakers’ big men, as did Glen Davis, who posted up twice against Lamar Odom, got blocked twice in the first half, and then settled for jumpers the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, the Lakers invited Rajon Rondo to launch jumpers and he proceeded to miss seven straight after hitting his first three field goals. Garnett, Davis, and Rondo finished 12 of 37 from the field and very few of those shots were attempted with confidence.

The Celtics badly need to reassert themselves because they have won lately on reputation. Since that resounding win over the Lakers in Los Angeles, the Celtics barely escaped in Sacramento and have experienced their first slump.

Doc Rivers would rather down a bottle of castor oil than blame losses on injuries. So he was in no mood last night. He knew exactly what happened. The Lakers’ big men pushed the Celtics to the perimeter and the Celtics weren’t aggressive enough to push back.

That’s acceptable when Allen is hitting 3-pointers to open up the floor, but the Lakers blanketed Allen with Darrelle Revis-like vigor and he was silent the last three quarters.

“We were totally not aggressive I think in the second half,’’ Garnett said. “We scored [33] in the second half, and that’s not us. I thought we became stagnant, robotic, got away from the things we were doing in the first half. We can’t beat anybody like that.’’

The Lakers, at their best, are one of the league’s top defensive teams. But the Celtics were guilty of the same struggles against Dallas and Charlotte. They have to stick to their offensive principles, get rebounds to start fast breaks and start hitting open jumpers.

Just when you believe Rondo is developing into an offensive weapon he turns into Chuck Knoblauch with the elbow jumper.

The problem isn’t defense. The Celtics have allowed an opponent to score 100 or more points once in the last 12 games. Kobe Bryant required 17 shots to score his 23 points, and the Celtics forced 15 turnovers. They needed precise execution on offense to secure a victory and they weren’t even close.

Without Shaquille O’Neal, the Celtics lack a fearsome presence in the paint. Kendrick Perkins is not a great finisher and is overly deliberate in his post moves, so teams are practically begging him to shoot.

The Celtics have two days and one practice to get their act together before the Boys from South Beach arrive with bad intentions. Miami is one of the league’s best defensively and the Celtics beat the Heat twice previously with ball movement and pinpoint shooting.

We haven’t seen that team in a few weeks.

“I don’t think we fought hard enough through adversity,’’ Rivers said. “And we’re great at that usually. I thought we went away from what we did in the first half. We stopped moving the ball. It was a bounce game for us. I told them we don’t have a post presence and if the shots stop going in [after halftime], then we’ll be in trouble.’’

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

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