ATLANTA — Visions of greatness have now turned into delusions. Championship aspirations have now turned into the meager goal of winning a game or maybe even two without heart-wrenching suspense or a stretch of prolonged stupor.
These 2012-13 Celtics have been reduced to laughingstocks on late-night highlight shows, basketball observers wondering what happened to the retooled bunch that was prepared to challenge Miami for the Eastern Conference title.
Those dreams have been replaced by real-life, high-definition nightmares, such as Friday night in Atlanta, when the Celtics looked so good for 18 minutes, like the team Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers envisioned, then spent the next 40 minutes reminding their beyond discouraged fan base, a bewildered coaching staff and management, and those naysayers how far from elite they really are.
A 27-point second-quarter lead was lost in a mere 11 minutes and 45 seconds. And a 9-point lead was wasted in the final 3:39 of regulation. The result was a humiliating 123-111 defeat in double overtime as the Celtics finally ran out of energy and passion while the Hawks showed more will down the stretch. It was Boston’s sixth straight loss.
The Celtics allowed Kyle Korver to can eight 3-pointers — all in the second half, a Hawks record. Atlanta, which looked inept midway through the second quarter, rallied from a 19-point halftime deficit and caught the Celtics at 59-59 on a Josh Smith layup with 6:16 left in the third quarter.
Boston then gathered itself, building a 96-87 lead with less than four minutes left, but Korver hit two 3-pointers in a 27-second span and Al Horford tied the game with two free throws with a minute to go. The Hawks had a chance to win in regulation but Smith missed a layup at the buzzer.
In the first overtime, the Celtics had chances to forge ahead by two possessions but didn’t score in the final 1:40. The struggling Paul Pierce was left to force a runner before the buzzer that was blocked by Smith. Shellshocked and exhausted, the Celtics had nothing left for the second overtime. Atlanta scored the first 10 points.
Stunned would be an understatement as to how the Celtics reacted to another excruciating loss.
“Pretty much, man, it’s a tough night tonight,’’ Kevin Garnett said. “When we had a chance to put this game away, we didn’t do that. We gave this team life. Korver came out, he got hot and obviously we couldn’t turn it off. When we got teams down, man, we gotta step on them. We gotta figure out ways to come out and finish the game.’’
Korver’s performance was pivotal but the Hawks scored 34 points off fast breaks and 50 in the paint. They released guards after every Celtics miss and earned either a layup or free throws. Atlanta attempted 36 free throws to the Celtics’ 20 while Pierce and Rajon Rondo combined for 11 turnovers.
Rivers, who threatened trades after a bad loss in Detroit last Sunday, shook his head in disbelief in Cleveland Tuesday, and praised his team’s effort against the Knicks Thursday, accused his club of relying on ghosts of the past.
“I just told our guys, you can win without humility,’’ Rivers said. “And this team, we play well. The first quarter and a half was a clinic on how to play basketball, how to play defense, and then we start breaking rules that you shouldn’t break when you’re in grade school. Our transition defense was a joke. We weren’t getting back. We kept standing and give them credit, they attacked us.’’
It seems, Rivers said, that the bravado and arrogance generated by the 2008 championship and 2010 NBA Finals appearance has been adopted by players who weren’t on either of those teams.
“One of the things I told them was, ‘Who do we think we are?’ ’’ he said. “We’re under .500. We get a lead, guys, we start acting like we’re the 2008 team. We’re not. We haven’t earned that right. So, disappointing.’’
Rivers essentially blamed the starters. They allowed the Hawks’ mini-run to end the second quarter and then allowed a 21-2 surge to begin the third quarter. The Celtics came out at halftime passive, allowing the Hawks to chip away with pressing defense and 3-pointers. Korver hit two during that critical run while the Celtics went scoreless for 6:18.
The Celtics were outscored by 30 points with Pierce on the floor, 22 with Avery Bradley, 20 with Rondo, and 19 with Garnett.
“It’s why we are what we are, it really is,’’ Rivers said. “I see it in the locker room. I see our talent. I see us play a quarter and a half of almost perfect basketball and then you can’t leave good enough alone, and then we start playing different.
“Listen, it’s me. I keep saying I gotta figure out a way to figure out the buttons with each individual. I’m just going to keep searching. I tell my coaches and I tell myself we got the right group. But we gotta act right all the time.’’
Garnett called out the starting five for its lack of focus to begin the second half. Bradley scored the lone bucket for that group in the first 11 minutes.
“As starters, we gotta be more accountable and obviously start off not just the games but third quarters [better],’’ Garnett said. “We gotta come out and establish the game, who we are. We can’t start thirds like that. We can’t rely on [just bouncing back like last season]. This is a whole different group of guys. That’s the past. We’re dealing with the present here. If we’re sitting around waiting on that, then that’s a joke.’’