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No closer to tasting victory

Doc Rivers and Kendrick Perkins are feeling down after the Heat answered a run by the Celtics. (JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

It's all rubber-necking now. The fabled Boston Celtics are a roadside pileup -- 16 cars long -- and fans can't resist slowing down to look at the carnage.

Once the standard of excellence in American professional sports, the Celtics lost their 16th straight game last night, this one a 91-79 defeat at the hands of the world champion Miami Heat.

Hard to believe it could ever come to this. Sixteen candles. One loss for each championship banner.

It's the equivalent of an NFL season. Without a single victory.

M.L. Carr was in the house last night. For a short while. It was like seeing the ghost of Clive Rush at Gillette. Like seeing Daddy Butch Hobson sitting in Fenway. Made you want to cover your eyes.

M.L. was commander of the SS Celtic, which sank in the North Atlantic under the weight of a Tim Duncan-driven 15-67 record in 1996-97. The Thanksdad Celtics sent M.L. to Secaucus, hoping he would deliver Duncan with the top pick in the lottery, but Carr was hardly a good-luck charm. The Celtics wound up with picks 3 and 6, and would-be savior Rick Pitino never recovered.

Whom will the Celtics send to New Jersey this time? Lucky the leprechaun? Tommy Heinsohn? The Cooz? Willie Maye? The dance team?

"We're not there yet," said owner Wyc Grousbeck. "Too early to talk about that."

It's not easy being green these days. The Celtics are an unthinkable 4-20 at home, with New Jersey on tap tomorrow night. They have lost an unfathomable 12 consecutive games at the Garden. They are within reach of the worst record in the league (which can be found walkin' in Memphis) and true contenders for future franchise players Kevin Durant of Texas and Greg Oden of Ohio State. They haven't won in more than a month (Jan. 5 at Memphis) and have an outside shot at the longest losing streak (23) in NBA history.

How does this make Grousbeck feel?

"It makes me physically sick," said the owner. "The good news is that people know these guys are playing their hearts out, just not getting it done on the floor."

What about the piling on? The once-proud franchise is a national punch line.

"Based on our record, people are entitled to write whatever they want," said Grousbeck. "Our roster is not complete [Paul Pierce has missed the last 24 games], but the record is unacceptable."

Delonte West is one who hurts when he hears people saying the Celtics are losing on purpose. West leaves skin on the hardwood every night. He's got pride. What about the cheap shots?

"I think it bothers all of the guys in this room," said the third-year guard. "We fight to win games. It just seems like every night it's something different. We're getting knocked down, but we keep getting up. Guys are still leaving it out on the floor. I think this is going to make us better players in the future."

Antoine Walker, now with the Heat but a rookie under Carr during the hideous '96-97 season, sympathized with today's young Celtics.

"I think they just don't understand how to win games at the end," said Walker. "But the good thing about them is that they are in every game. I was here when we lost 67. I don't think they're headed for that."

Commander Carr had no comment on the wreckage of 1996-97. He's moved on to other ventures.

A slimmed-down Walker was on the floor when the Celtics bolted to a 25-13 lead in the first quarter. The Celtics led by 10 after one, but Miami scored 10 straight to tie the game early in the second. Doc Rivers's ever-green team scored only 13 points (5 for 23 from the floor) in the second quarter and trailed, 44-40, at halftime. It was 70-58 after three with a distinct air of inevitability wafting through the arena. Dwyane Wade (30 points, 6 rebounds, 9 assists) wasn't going to endure the indignity of losing to the Celtics. This one was not close at the end. And no one said "boo."

"Nothing that I've done has worked," acknowledged Rivers.

The coach said he might reduce the rotation to seven or eight players in the wake of the loss, and his manpower was further diminished by the loss of Wally Szczerbiak, who left with a sprained left ankle.

Grousbeck said he would not make judgments on Rivers or hoops boss Danny Ainge "on the basis of this roster." That means Doc and Danny continue to get a free pass while Pierce heals. Many fans, meanwhile, are OK if Pierce stays on the sideline. Why bother winning now? The worst record gives the Celtics almost a 50 percent chance at Oden or Durant.

And with each successive loss, the Celtics become more interesting. Futility can make you famous. There is something Olympian about losing 16 in a row. The Celtic franchise has been around for 60 years and the longest streak before this one was a mere 13 games.

Now they're at a bitter 16. Lurching toward Secaucus. And a date with their future.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is