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Once again, they’re taking the hard way

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / June 8, 2012
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Something was definitely smelling foul Thursday night at TD Garden. The Celtics were lethargic at the beginning, inept in the middle, and outclassed in the end. The Celtics had no response to LeBron James’s heroics and now they are relegated to a potential era-ending Game 7 Saturday.

And it’s a shame, too. Because from the early afternoon when traffic around the Garden resembled New Year’s Eve 1999, there was an anticipation for greatness, that Doc Rivers would lead this bunch of banged-up, aging warriors past the physically superior Heat and onto the NBA Finals.

Yet the Heat were superior in their 98-79 Game 6 victory, the Celtics’ final lead coming at 4-3. James was magnificent, providing the type of mouth-dropping, critic-quieting performance that will resonate for years. That wasn’t the issue for the Celtics, who fully expected James to be super. The issue was they shrank under the pressure that James applied.

Paul Pierce was alarmingly slow and frustrated. He was 4 for 18 and was outscored by James, 45-9. James brought his best to the stage and Pierce looked as if he was aching from his sprained left MCL, unable to generate any offense.

When Pierce is misfiring the Celtics desperately need compensation, and Kevin Garnett couldn’t deliver. From the opening minutes, it was apparent he was going to struggle offensively. His 18-foot elbow jumpers clanged off the back rim, his bank shots were too hard. He even struggled with layups despite playing against the smaller James and Udonis Haslem.

The matchups the Celtics exploited the previous three games, they were unable to capitalize on Thursday and there was little explanation besides fatigue. It was a demoralizing loss considering the consequences. Now they must return to Miami and face those motivated Heat fans anticipating a return to the NBA Finals and a matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“This team has been about adversity all year long,’’ Pierce said. “So this is not gonna be nothing new. It’s been tough for us all year long to get to the point where we would be at, and why wouldn’t it be tough now? Winning is hard. Trying to get to the Finals is hard. And this is as hard as it gets. And I think we are prepared for it.’’

It’s been established that these Celtics never do anything easy, but at least they could have given themselves a fighting chance to win Thursday. The Celtics seemed resigned to their fate, hardly shocked that they produced a clunker because they have before. The Big Three has not exactly glided through their playoff runs, when they failed to close out opponents and get rest and peace of mind.

“Nothing’s been easy up until this point,’’ Garnett said. “Can’t expect it now. Some shots didn’t fall that we know we can make. Everybody in here was pumped up. Everybody was probably too jacked. Didn’t transcend to a win, though.’’

Garnett carried the Celtics through most of the first five games, but at 36 he is going to experience nights like these. This was what the critics expected from this series at the beginning, an athletic Heat team featuring the game’s most physically dominant player breezing through a bunch of geezers lucky to be here.

That was the case Thursday night, and the Celtics are banking that it was an aberration. And there was little explanation. The place was packed and the Celtics appeared ready to repeat their Game 5 performance.

The key for Miami was a 14-2 run near the end of the first quarter, 10 of those scored by James with relative ease. The Celtics tried to make various runs, but they were consistently plagued by mistakes, hero passes, and missed open shots.

“I don’t know, we clearly didn’t have the right energy,’’ Rivers said when asked about the slow start. “You never know why. Obviously, they came and they wanted to have it. Listen, when a guy comes out and throws a barrage on you like that, that takes some energy out of you. And maybe it’s as simple as that. I don’t think so, but you just never know.’’

Rajon Rondo’s night was made even worse by having to wait five minutes outside the postgame podium for James to finish his session. During that stretch, he conversed with James’s buddy Maverick Carter and then watched as James walked out of his press conference and slapped hands with his entourage with a bright smile.

The Celtics wanted to be the ones smiling, but once again they were allergic to prosperity. It’s hardly a surprise.

“I wasn’t angry,’’ said Rondo. They won one game. Now we have to go down and go to Miami and win a game. We’ve done it before. Put this game in the past, and we have to look forward and not let this linger on too long. I’m fine. I’m ready to get going and play a Game 7.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.

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