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Death of the killer instinct

It’s not a stretch to say teams don’t fear Celtics

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / April 2, 2011

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ATLANTA — It seemed the Atlanta Hawks were fried. In front of a national television audience, the Celtics sent a message to the rest of the NBA that they were back with six½ impressive quarters of basketball. A few possessions away from putting the Hawks in the rearview mirror, the Celtics relaxed and suddenly transformed into the mess of a team they have been for the past month.

In a 2 1/2-hour period, NBA fans observed why the Celtics could go to the NBA Finals and why they could lose in the first round. Their apparent disinterest has sparked a lack of execution. Old guys, except if you are Dominique Wilkins, can’t turn it on like they used to.

The Celtics are waiting for consistency to return. And in the interim, they are losing games they should win. They finished this important four-game road trip a pedestrian 2-2 with blown fourth-quarter leads against the Pacers and Hawks.

Those young teams no longer fear the Celtics. The aura is officially gone. In past years, teams trailing Boston by double digits would simply fold; now they view the deficit as surmountable. Opposing teams still celebrate wins over the Celtics as if they have clinched division titles. Countless times you read the term “one of the biggest wins of the season’’ when describing a lesser team’s triumph over the Celtics.

These results shouldn’t come as such a surprise anymore. This team is running out of gas, especially in second games of back-to-back sets. But this defeat was inexcusable because the Celtics spent the third quarter toying with the Hawks, more interested in entertaining the crowd with picturesque fast-break baskets — when they didn’t have numbers — than slowing the ball and pounding it into the paint.

In the fourth quarter, when the Celtics produced a listless 15 points, they tallied just 6 of those in the paint, missed 12 of 17 shots, and allowed the Hawks six extra possessions because of their refusal to block out on rebounds.

Doc Rivers appears even more distressed than usual and tried to protect his players, claiming fatigue. But the Celtics had two days off before their victory Thursday in San Antonio and Rivers used 10 players last night, including Jermaine O’Neal, who grabbed just one rebound in 16 minutes. The fact is the Celtics are a disjointed group and have become more of a tease than actual threat to win the Eastern Conference.

Teams such as Chicago, Miami, Denver, and the Lakers have come to Atlanta and pounded the Hawks with little resistance. And the Celtics were putting on a similar show, but absent-mindedly forgot everything that earned them such third-quarter status.

“We’re concerned about playing well and better on a consistent basis,’’ forward Kevin Garnett said. “I don’t know what the other guys are thinking, but right now the focus is trying to get a consistent level of play on a consistent basis.

“We’ve got to continue to work. We are either going to quit and go home or continue to get better. We have no history of quitting, so that’s what we’re going to do.’’

But how? The Celtics have practiced harder, they have taken days off, they have waited for good health, Danny Ainge has fortified the bench. And still they can’t string three or four wins together as they did earlier in the season.

It’s a helpless feeling for Rivers, who finally believed his team had regained its confidence and thirst for execution after the San Antonio win. But now that victory may be considered just catching a slumping team at the right time, since the Spurs lost again last night.

There are seven games left, enough time for the Celtics to get back what they have owned for the past four years. But it’s definitely time to start considering whether this team has lost its killer instinct. Would they rather play up to the Atlanta crowd than grind out a win over the Hawks?

The answer last night was yes.

“I thought in the middle of the third quarter we got loose,’’ said Rivers, whose team led, 60-48, with 6:51 left in the third. “It’s the same prescription for back-to-backs. We had a chance to go from 11 up to 18 up in my opinion. We took horrible shots on one end and became lax on the other end and it became a game. When we gave up that lead [in the third quarter], you knew it was coming.’’

And Rivers made an astute observation about the second half, revealing that when he called halfcourt sets, the Celtics’ big men floated to the perimeter and settled for jump shots.

One of those culprits was Glen Davis, who ignored the paint and launched eight jumpers, hitting a desperation 32-footer.

Davis took three shots in the paint and made them all.

That pretty much sums up the Celtics’ stubbornness.

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

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