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Nets 88, Celtics 79

Uneven Celtics leveled

They rally late but then run out of steam vs. Nets

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / March 15, 2011

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NEWARK — If the Celtics lose the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs to the Bulls or the Heat, they will look back to this stretch of games against lesser teams and wonder why they weren’t more consistent and passionate.

In what has become their pattern this season, the Celtics last night simply refused to play their best against a lesser team, instead responding with an uneven and disjointed effort. At first they appeared ready to send the Nets to defeat and minutes later they were unable to run their offense without a bobbled ball or errant pass. New Jersey prevailed, 88-79, in front of a full house at the Prudential Center.

These are the Celtics of March, who don’t look prepared to defend their Eastern Conference title, but don’t blame the ghost of Kendrick Perkins, either. The blame for the recent struggles can be put squarely on the Big Three and Rajon Rondo, who have been erratic at the most inopportune times.

After slicing a 12-point Nets lead to 2 in the span of 6:24 of the fourth quarter, the Celtics didn’t score for the final 3:09, missing their final six shots. The Nets were the ones closing the game, using a Deron Williams 3-pointer to seal the victory.

After seemingly having a safe lead atop the conference two weeks ago, the Celtics are tied with the Bulls, each team having 17 games left. And it’s not as if Boston has faltered against the elite teams. The Celtics have lost to the Clippers, 76ers, and Nets the past six days, holding a fourth-quarter lead in just one of those games.

The Celtics held the Nets to 14 points and five field goals in the first quarter but allowed 74 points and 26 field goals in the final three. While coach Doc Rivers has stressed 3-point defense since arriving in Boston, the Celtics allowed a whopping 11 last night, which made up for New Jersey’s 39.7 percent shooting.

The Nets shot 44 percent from the 3-point line and 37.7 on 2-pointers, evidence of the Celtics’ fatigue and refusal to finish off defensive possessions.

“I was just disappointed in our execution, yeah, but [more] our focus,’’ Rivers said. “I thought we’re just not playing well right now, No. 1, and you go through that and sometimes you have to wait for your team and right now I’m waiting for them to kick back into gear.

“We gave up 31 points in the third quarter and I thought it was more transition game, them just beating us down the floor.’’

The Celtics are now 2-8 on the second road game of a back-to-back. What’s demoralizing to the Celtics about last night was that they played the same stellar defense in the first half as they did Sunday against Milwaukee. The Nets shot 32.5 percent in the first 24 minutes and the Celtics were dominating the paint, outscoring New Jersey’s big men, 16-8.

Nets coach Avery Johnson’s trapping defense forced the Celtics into becoming perimeter shooters in the second half and the trio of Rondo, Jeff Green, and Paul Pierce was 3 of 14 after halftime. Glen Davis kept the Celtics close with 10 of his 16 points in the second half, but he missed a 19-footer with 57.9 seconds left that could have cut the lead to 2.

Finally, with the 24-second clock winding down, Williams launched a 28-foot trey from the top of the key that rattled through, and the Celtics were done.

“When they got the shots, they made them,’’ forward Kevin Garnett said. “We couldn’t get a stop when we needed them. We was right there. We cut it to 2 and suddenly it was over.’’

When asked if the Celtics are slumping, Garnett said, “We’re fine. We just have to be more consistent with what we’re doing. I think I’ve repeated this 100 times, I’m going to keep on saying consistency. We can’t keep playing like we did [Sunday night] and then play like this. We’ll get it right.’’

The Nets took control with a 7-0 run to end the third quarter, including 3-pointers by Anthony Morrow and Sundiata Gaines. New Jersey then began the fourth with a 7-1 run and Travis Outlaw drained a three right in front of the Celtics bench for a 74-62 lead with 9:33 left.

Of course the Celtics wouldn’t fold that easily. They dominated the next six minutes behind Davis, slicing the deficit to 81-79 on a Big Baby jumper with 3:09 left. Although the Nets shot just 35 percent in the final period, they won the game with key 3-pointers and an aggressive defense that capitalized on an erratic Rondo.

Nursing sore ankles and reeling from a James Harrison-type screen by Kris Humphries in the opening minutes, Rondo turned in one of his shakiest performances of the season, scoring 2 points (1 for 10) with 9 assists, 4 rebounds, and 4 turnovers. Rondo missed a couple of early chip-shot layups, and that appeared to affect his confidence.

“We’re just trying to get healthy, really,’’ Rondo said. “It’s been a long season. But we’ve got to run through the finish line. These last four or five games, with the exception of the last game [against Milwaukee], we haven’t played well.

“It’s something every game. [Last night] we got off to a good start but we didn’t finish. It’s a little bit of everything right now, not just one thing. I think our focus has to be a little bit better.’’

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

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