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Arrogance has its disadvantages

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 19, 2012
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PHILADELPHIA - Would you have expected the Celtics to take any other route? The prosperity was just too much to take with an 18-point lead in the third quarter of Game 4 against the 76ers. The Celtics were playing too well, almost to the point where Celtics faithful expected a dramatic dropoff.

Their fears came to fruition as the Celtics played perhaps one of their worst halves in three months, dusted by the suddenly energetic 76ers, 61-37, in the final two quarters. A 15-point halftime lead was wasted by early in the fourth quarter and the Celtics could do nothing to stop a young and confident team that was energized by a crowd that suddenly believed.

The Wells Fargo Center was silent through the first half, moans and groans flooded the arena as the 76ers couldn’t hit a free throw, complete an interior pass, or dribble without the ball bouncing off an ankle. The Celtics appeared to believe they had already won the series, soaring with optimism after their Game 2 win at TD Garden - before suddenly turning into the Washington Generals.

Leave it to the Celtics to become ambivalent and allow the 76ers to chip away. The team’s glaring weaknesses - camouflaged by a smooth-flowing offense and gripping defense - were exposed. The Celtics couldn’t grab a rebound down the stretch, outworked and overwhelmed by Lavoy Allen and Thaddeus Young.

A series that shouldn’t be close suddenly is because the 76ers have executed better in the fourth quarter. How else would you explain the Celtics’ defensive breakdowns, such as when they allowed Jodie Meeks, whose field goal attempts are nearly 57 percent 3-pointers, to be wide open for a long-range shot for a 66-65 lead at 9:49 of the fourth?

Or how about when Paul Pierce, coasting toward an uncontested layup, with the game tied at 81 with 2:15 left, decided to Cadillac it with backspin, causing it to carom off? And then Pierce was caught against Andre Iguodala, who scored 8 points in the final 3:11 to help Philadelphia pull away.

While there weren’t technical fouls or mistakes out of frustration, the Celtics still lost their composure because they lost sight of their game plan. When Kevin Garnett was obviously erratic from the field, the Celtics tried shooting midrange jumpers, and then Rajon Rondo tried forcing passes into little creases and that resulted in five fourth-quarter turnovers.

“We did more than settle, we lost our composure,’’ Rivers said. “We stopped running our stuff. Whenever that happens, I always think that’s me. I think there’s something the coach can do to slow them down, to get them back in their sets to get them back in their rhythm and I couldn’t do it. To me, I always think that’s my fault.’’

It was a demoralizing stretch that turned the series into a best-of-three with all the pressure squarely on the Celtics.

And now they have two full days to hear about how they botched an opportunity to mute the Sixers and give themselves some rest. Such criticism can either motivate the Celtics into putting together consecutive strong games to finish the series or add so much of a mental burden that it breaks the Celtics.

“We may have lost our composure, but we’re a veteran team. We’re better than that,’’ Rondo said.

“We don’t want to say that we settled. We knew these guys weren’t going to lay down at home. They made some shots; they made a lot of big shots. They outworked us a couple of possessions and got good offensive rebounds.’’

The Celtics finally have to comprehend that they are no longer good enough or intimidating enough to win with one good half. Philadelphia shot 37.8 percent for the game, Evan Turner missed 17 shots, starters Elton Brand and Spencer Hawes converted two field goals and grabbed five rebounds.

But their arrogance and lack of focus continues to allow rookie Lavoy Allen to make a sizable impact. Meanwhile Young is lefthanded and has been throughout the entire series, yet he is allowed to go left each time he touches the ball in the paint.

Also, Iguodala hit 6 of 12 3-pointers in the previous three games, and yet the Celtics allowed him to launch two uncontested 3s in the final three minutes. The Celtics have constantly been guilty of lacking attention to detail, but they escaped in the previous series against bumbling Atlanta.

This time, their short attention span not only earned them another trip to Philadelphia for Game 6, but added intrigue to a series that appeared done.

The 76ers will return to Boston with all the momentum and none of the pressure. That’s a pretty good deal.

“We’re a strong-minded team, a veteran team,’’ Rondo said. “We know we let this one slip away . . . So, we’ll be ready for Game 5.’’

Can we be certain of that?

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