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Celtics have found the switch

Power turned on again in playoffs

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / April 24, 2011

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NEW YORK — They wondered both privately and publicly when things would turn around.

At some point, the “when’’ gave way to “if’’ for the Celtics.

The team started the season 24-5, taking a blow torch to the league during a 14-game winning streak. As late as March 6, they were 46-15, riding a five-game winning streak after trading Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City.

Then things stalled. They struggled on the court as injuries looked insurmountable and the second-guessing started. The Celtics slipped from first place to third, and they wondered, as much as outsiders did, if they’d be able to pull it all together by the start of the postseason.

“You definitely go through that moment,’’ Paul Pierce said.

It was like last year’s team that dragged itself to the regular-season finish line on flat tires and little fuel.

“Even last season, you wondered when things were going to come around,’’ Pierce said. “The way we played the end of last year and this year is definitely not a recipe we want to stick to. Going into the playoffs, you want to be playing well.’’

But like last season, the Celtics have shaken off a trying end to the regular season and jumped out to a three-games-to-none lead in their first-round playoff series. A year ago, it was the Heat, who at the time were essentially a one-man operation in Dwyane Wade. This year it’s the Knicks, who assembled three stars only to have two of them — Chauncey Billups (sprained knee) and Amar’e Stoudemire (back spasms) — go down with injuries.

At the same time, the execution that the Celtics abandoned late in the regular season has been sharpened in the playoffs.

In just a week’s time, their focus and performance have heightened.

“For some reason when the playoffs come around, the guys know how to step up,’’ Pierce said. “It’s really frustrating for me that you can play so inconsistent and then come in to the playoffs and things just start happening the way you want them to happen.’’

Pierce’s numbers dived in March. His points caved to 17.9 per game. His shooting from beyond the arc plummeted to 28.3 percent. The lowest point may have been when he went 2 for 10 in Houston March 18 then followed it up by going 1 for 9 in New Orleans.

He’s averaging 25.3 points against the Knicks, throwing a party from 3-point range (9 for 16, 56.3 percent).

Ray Allen also was searching for answers at the end of the season. His shots were down to an average of 11.5 a night in March and 8.7 in April, and he was starting to become vocal about wanting more touches.

He took 15 shots when he scored 24 points in Game 1 and 18 in Game 3, when he dropped 32 points.

By his own admission, Rajon Rondo went through the worst stretch of his career. The explanations ranged from fatigue to depression after trading Perkins, his best friend on the team,

He sprayed a Celtics playoff-record 20 assists around in Game 3.

“It’s like a new focus, a new energy there when you start the playoffs because everything gets erased,’’ Pierce said. “It’s like a clean start,’’ Pierce said. “And when you get a clean start, you throw all those bad things out the window. Your focus really goes up.’’

To an extent, coach Doc Rivers expected the light bulb to go on eventually. He knew his team was capable of dialing in once the moment came, the way it did last season. But he didn’t want the players to use last season’s run to the Finals as a crutch.

“You still don’t know,’’ Rivers said. “You’ve still got to work on it, you’ve still got to demand it, and the thing is sometimes you have [teams] where you find out during the playoffs that’s who they are. And that’s the bad news.

“As a coach, I always worry about execution and stuff. With the veterans you know they have it. If you can get it out of them is always the question.’’

There are teams that have walked the same tightrope the Celtics have the past two years. The 2000 Lakers won 56 games, struggled in March, and then ripped off wins in their first 11 playoff games. If it wasn’t for Allen Iverson willing the 76ers to a Game 1 win in the Finals, they would have gone undefeated in the postseason.

“They weren’t playing well, then the playoffs started and they went [15-1],’’ Pierce said. “Just caught a rhythm in the playoffs. It’s definitely something that could happen, because we did it last year. Hopefully that’s something we can turn on right now.’’

There was a growing sense toward the end of the Celtics’ season that they were racing the clock. They were losing games trying to integrate players while waiting on Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal to return.

But as frustrating as the losses were, the Celtics say they’re starting to find whatever they were searching for.

“I’ve always said that you always learn so much more when you lose a game or when you go through something,’’ Allen said. “You have your adversities and everybody trying to figure it out, talking and communicating. So I think those are kind of our trials and tribulations through the year, trying to figure it out. You get to the playoffs and the serious nature goes up a couple of notches.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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