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On basketball

Let’s not play this game

No need to panic at every defeat

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / March 22, 2011

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NEW YORK — Seemingly, those Orien Greene years, the 18-game losing streaks, the Gerald Green-is-our-savior times have been forgotten by some fans and critics, replaced by a panic each time the Celtics lose a game, or even two in a row.

Such has been the case at times this season.

After getting embarrassed by the Rockets Friday night, the Celtics faced another self-imposed crossroads Saturday night in New Orleans, and after trailing by 14 points at the end of the first quarter, it seemed they had lost their edge, possibly when Kendrick Perkins left for Oklahoma City.

But the final three quarters of that game were a defensive clinic by Boston, the denial of easy opposition baskets that marked their play the past three years. The Celtics seemed to be returning to defensive form after their franchise-jarring trade of Perkins and Nate Robinson for Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green.

And that continued last night at Madison Square Garden, where the Celtics locked down the new-look Knicks with a brilliant and bloodied defensive second half in a 96-86 win. New York shot 31 percent in the final two quarters, including a combined two field goals from Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, two-thirds of their new Big Three.

The Celtics trailed, 51-37, at halftime and looked fried, but they gathered themselves defensively and stuffed the Knicks, who were only saved by Chauncey Billups’s 11 points and 4-point play.

While the Celtics have blown away opponents at times this season with defensive execution, Boston has not been able to offer such dominance on a consistent basis.

And they were pathetic against the Rockets, as Kyle Lowry emerged as the latest point guard to scorch Rajon Rondo and the Celtics simply pulled back after halftime. If this team is capable of a long championship run, it certainly didn’t appear so at that point.

But in reality, this season has progressed more smoothly than last season, when the Celtics won just 50 games and finished by going 27-27.

This edition of the Celtics reached the 50-win mark, has yet to endure a three-game losing streak, and has battled for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference despite getting precious little contribution from Jermaine O’Neal and none from Shaquille O’Neal since Feb. 1.

Even with the injuries, the Celtics haven’t been as inconsistent as some believe. Not that they can’t tighten up in the final month of the regular season, but they have managed to avoid some of last year’s hiccups.

When asked before last night’s game if the Celtics are beginning to jell after the trade, to become more defensively sound — except for the loss to Houston — Kevin Garnett didn’t entirely agree.

“That’s what I’m saying, it can’t be like that,’’ he said. “It can’t be a situation where you do well against two teams and then come out and not do well against one team. Our thing since I’ve been here has always been consistency. I said that if we are going to be a great team, a team of fire, we are going to have to be a consistent team. Until the new guys get our schemes, that’s going to be the challenge. That’s where we’re at right now.

“In order to be a good team, you can’t have those letdowns.’’

The Celtics have established such a high standard they sometimes don’t step back to appreciate their accomplishments. They are by far the oldest team in the Eastern Conference, and were supposed to be lapped by the Heat, and yet they have a legitimate chance for home-court advantage throughout the Eastern playoffs.

“I think a lot of times we’re a veteran group and have known each other for a while,’’ Garnett said. “And a lot of times we’re a group that has been through those battles and those fights and I think that experience helps us. You put in some new guys and that whole component changes. I’m comfortable to say that as a whole, it’s big, but we’re getting there.’’

The Celtics have allowed just 88.5 points per game in March, their best month of the season, and they set a franchise record for the shot-clock era in holding the Bucks to 56 points March 13. Teams such as the Knicks struggle because they can’t shut down teams to win games, only outscore them. And last night, they stalled on offense.

“I thought we got kind of stagnant offensively,’’ Stoudemire said. “We didn’t quite get into our plays, a lot of tough shots with the clock running low, so it’s definitely a little frustrating. When you are playing a team like Boston or any of the elite teams, you have to be sharp offensively because they are such a great defensive team.’’

Boston, on the other hand, can win without a great night on offense. When the players are in the right spots and following assistant coach Lawrence Frank’s defensive schemes, they are beautiful to watch and achieve success simultaneously.

After last night’s win, the Celtics had 13 games to get to playoff form, and they are a lot closer to that level than they were last season, but those fans and critics who have been spoiled by past success are concerned about their recent struggles.

The Celtics trust their system, they trust each other, and they trust coach Doc Rivers, which is the recipe for long-term prosperity. So as they tallied another 50-win season, their fourth straight, there should be some reflection and appreciation.

And at the same time, there should be increased focus and precision.

“It’s definitely been a unique season,’’ guard Ray Allen said before taking seven stitches above the right eye thanks to a Jared Jeffries elbow.

“We’ve been fighting ourselves somewhat the whole year. If the season ended today, we have fought the whole time to stay above water. We’ve done an A-plus job at staying afloat, and not only staying afloat, but excelling.’’

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

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