Problematic Celtics need to be answerable

Working it out
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / March 30, 2011

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SAN ANTONIO — Remember those days leading into the All-Star break when the walls were crumbling around the Lakers?

They lost three straight road games. The most embarrassing was when the Cavaliers knocked them down a peg in Cleveland. Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson was saying things like, “They took a break before the game started.’’ Lamar Odom was saying things like, “It’s back to the drawing board.’’

The Celtics were 40-14 at that point, while the Lakers seemed to be facing the apocalypse.

Since the All-Star break, the Lakers are a scalding 15-1, and Kobe Bryant is trying to chase down Derrick Rose in the MVP race.

Remember right after the All-Star break, when Miami kept inventing ways to lose in the fourth quarter? The Heat had chances to beat New York, Orlando, Chicago, and Portland but couldn’t find the supposed “closer’’ among their three superstars.

They became one of only 12 teams in league history to have a 12-game winning streak and a five-game losing streak in the same season. They became a case study — or a punch line — for grown men shedding tears.

Now, Miami has won eight of 10 (though it lost to Cleveland last night). In a win over the Rockets Sunday, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and LeBron James all went for 30 points and 10 rebounds.

And they are a half-game behind the Celtics for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Meanwhile, the Celtics are struggling, having dropped seven of their last 12 games and falling from the top spot in the East. They are searching for answers with the playoffs just nine games away.

“Every team has their issues,’’ said Kevin Garnett. “We’re no different from what issues we have as a team and the things that we’re dealing with. Everyone wants to be playing well going into the playoffs and we’re no different from that. We’re just dealing with our issues.

“Either you can quit, go home, pack it up, and give up, or you can do something about it. We’ve always been that type of team to do something about it and continue to work.’’

But where to start? Each night it seems to be something different.

At one point it was poor starts. Now it’s bad finishes. They were working in a cast of new additions. Now the starters are struggling. Their defense wouldn’t let teams out of the 80s, but Monday night they let the Pacers hang up 107.

If there’s a starting point, it’s the defense, and after a line of point guards had nice nights against him (Darren Collison, D.J. Augustin, Chauncey Billups) Rajon Rondo was quick to raise his hand.

“It starts with me,’’ he said. “It starts with the pick-and-roll up top. So regardless if we score, the last five minutes of the game we’ve got to find a way to get stops.’’

The Celtics have given up at least 40 points in the paint six times this month. On Monday, Roy Hibbert stomped all through the paint, scoring 26 of Indiana’s 42 points there.

“It’s not just Hibbert, it’s dribble penetration,’’ Rondo said after the game. “And it’s not just today. A lot of teams have been dominating us in the paint as far as offensive rebounds.

“It’s not just the bigs but guards have to crack back on the rebounding. Right now, a lot of teams are living in the paint. That’s something we usually don’t allow.’’

The issues in the fourth quarter seem new, but coach Doc Rivers said that for nearly the past 20 games, fourth quarters have been “50-50.’’ Rondo has said before that the team doesn’t have the one or two go-to plays they used to run down the stretch when Kendrick Perkins was in the lineup and all five starters had the playbook installed in their brains.

“We don’t have any plays that we usually go to,’’ Rondo said. “The past couple years, we’ve had a couple of plays that we can call and — not necessarily make the shot, but get a decent shot or possession. Right now, we’re a little all over the place.’’

Rivers doesn’t doubt the team will find its way before the playoffs. His worry is with the new players. “They’re getting a bad example right now,’’ he said.

And as for the notion that the Celtics backed into the playoffs last season and still reached the Finals, Paul Pierce said don’t count on history repeating itself.

“We can’t think about what we did last year, how we eased into the playoffs, because that’s not going to work this year,’’ said Pierce. “There’s a lot of teams out there hungry, playing well. We’ve got to get our act together right now and start playing well going into the playoffs.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at

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