The Celtics hoped the lesser New Jersey Nets showed up at TD Banknorth Garden last night. They wanted the underachieving, road-weary, injury-riddled Nets, not the version favored to win the Atlantic Division. They wanted the Nets who dropped all four games on a recent Western Conference swing and arrived here riding a six-game losing streak.
They wanted the Nets who were not in synch after the recent return of Richard Jefferson. They wanted the tired Nets playing the second of back-to-back games.
The Celtics got what they wanted for almost three quarters. But it was only a matter of time until the defending Atlantic Division champions showed up and took advantage of the Celtics' defensive miscues and other on-court indiscretions. Rallying from a 15-point, third-quarter deficit, New Jersey snapped its losing streak and vaulted into first place in the Atlantic with a 106-103 win.
As the Nets' big three -- Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, and Jefferson -- strode gleefully off the court, it appeared the visitors had regained their swagger. The same could not be said for the Celtics, who left the court shaking their heads amid a smattering of boos from the crowd of 16,042 at the Garden. The Celtics not only squandered a double-digit advantage, they also lost a chance at gaining momentum and confidence heading into what promises to be a tough December.
Following the loss, coach Doc Rivers could not help but catalog the many ways Boston (5-9) failed to execute the game plan. Traps that never came. Or traps in the wrong places. Rushed shots, such as the 3-pointer Paul Pierce took with 31 seconds remaining and Boston trailing, 104-103. The Celtics did have the final possession after Pierce fouled Vince Carter, but with time winding down, Wally Szczerbiak failed to take a shot. Szczerbiak lost the ball out of bounds on a drive to the basket.
"I just lost control," Szczerbiak said. "It was my bad, my fault. I should have known time was running out and should have gotten the three up."
It was left to Rivers to make the key point.
"When you're begging for a three at the end of the game," he said, "you've put yourself in a tough position to begin with."
Szczerbiak's turnover was the last in a long line of mistakes by the Celtics that stretched to the third quarter. As the third came to a close, Kidd helped engineer the New Jersey comeback, starting a 23-8 run with a 22-footer, a steal, and a fast-break layup. When Carter replaced Kidd late in the quarter, the shooting guard sustained the run by scoring on four of the Nets' first five possessions of the final period. With Kidd, Carter, and Jefferson on the floor a few minutes into the fourth, there was no stopping the Nets (6-9) as they took the lead for the first time, 93-92, on two free throws by Hassan Adams.
For the most part, the teams traded baskets down the stretch, though Boston did extend its lead to 99-95 when Szczerbiak dunked on the break with 3:50 left. Unshaken and undeterred, the Nets tied the score on a pair of Carter free throws. They took the lead for good when Jefferson nailed a 3-pointer with 1:19 remaining. The hoop provided another example, according to Rivers, of the Celtics' trapping in the wrong places.
"Those are little things we work on every day and it's tough when you see it not happen," Rivers said. "But I'm going to keep saying this: 'I like this team.' We've got to shorten the inconsistencies. That's how I look at our team every night. We play for eight [good] minutes in a quarter and four bad minutes. We've got to keep shortening that time so we can win games."
Boston finished the third quarter ahead, 84-76, after leading by as many as 15 points on three occasions. The advantage seemed particularly encouraging given the way the Nets had played late in games. Entering last night, New Jersey was 0-7 in games in which they trailed after the third quarter. The Celtics played the third like they were aware of that statistic, pulling away with a 14-0 run early in the quarter.
The spurt featured a pair of 3-pointers from Pierce (31 points) as Boston shot 4 for 7 from 3-point range in the third. But then the Nets started their run and the Celtics couldn't hit a 3-pointer when they needed one most, at the end of the game.
The Celtics believe they are close to becoming a consistently good team. But coaches and players believing in themselves doesn't mean much unless it results in wins. Rivers said as much.
At some point, costly mistakes late in games constitute a disappointing pattern, not a team close to putting it together.
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.