On Basketball

Flops on the big stage

This performance was full of sour notes

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra (left) and Celtics guard Rajon Rondo (right) restrain Miami’s Mario Chalmers during a skirmish between the teams. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra (left) and Celtics guard Rajon Rondo (right) restrain Miami’s Mario Chalmers during a skirmish between the teams. (Alan Diaz/Associated Press)
By Gary Washburn
April 11, 2011

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MIAMI — Yesterday at AmericanAirlines Arena, it was like Frank Sinatra singing with the aid of a teleprompter. It was the last gasps from a great Celtics team — unless something dramatically changes before Saturday.

Like Sinatra in those final days, the Celtics were recognizable, but the show they performed wasn’t quite the same. They were good for 7 minutes and 32 seconds, when Kevin Garnett hit the fourth 3-pointer of his Celtics career to produce a 22-15 lead over the Heat.

Then the Celtics didn’t score for the rest of the quarter. Then they recorded one field goal in the first five minutes of the second quarter. And they never led again, showing little emotion and much confusion in a 100-77 drubbing.

There is frustration regarding this team. The Celtics are not themselves, or maybe they are themselves. Maybe this is what the team erosion over the past year has made them become. Maybe these are the players who will hit the court at TD Garden this weekend, realizing they eventually will be playoff prey.

Miami ain’t scared anymore, and neither is Chicago. Both whipped the Celtics on national television in the last few days, each one an embarrassing performance by the men in green. And after yesterday’s listless showing, the players and coaches are questioning whether they can get that confidence back, whether they can extend that 7:32 to a full 48 minutes.

That’s unlikely.

“The bottom line is we gotta do everything. We’ve just got to be better,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “We know that. And we’ll see if we can.’’

Even Rivers has shifted from optimistic to uncertain. After the Celtics’ 104-88 victory over the Wizards Friday night, he appeared hopeful that the Celtics would jolt South Beach and make a late-season statement.

They made a statement all right, and it said, “Don’t fear us, not in our current state.’’

So the goal this week is to somehow regain what has been lost. But it seems no one has any answers, because the same thing keeps happening.

After an impressive 99-82 win over the 76ers last Tuesday, the Celtics appeared primed for a bounce-back final week of the regular season. Instead they are as befuddled as they have been since the Big Three were brought together.

“It’s very hard [losing in that fashion], especially going into the playoffs,’’ forward Paul Pierce said. “You expect a little more urgency, especially in the last week of the season. The hustle game is killing us. It is very disturbing when I look up and we are down 15 rebounds to a team that is not known for their rebounding.’’

The numbers were just ugly. The Heat outrebounded the Celtics, 42-26, 15-3 on the offensive boards. Jermaine O’Neal did not score or record a rebound in 14 minutes. Glen Davis took more shots than Ray Allen and missed eight of those 11 attempts.

Rajon Rondo turned in another of those mind-bogglingly erratic games in which he seems overwhelmed by the intensity and significance of the moment. He had just five assists in 37 minutes and appeared afraid to attempt a layup with a defender within 20 feet.

Yet, when approached on his way to the team bus after not making himself available to the media, Rondo appeared strangely confident.

“I’ll take a lot of responsibility and we’ll be right when the time comes,’’ he said. “I know the time is basically right now, but when we touch that floor in the first game of the playoffs, we’ll be ready.’’

When asked if he was confident about that statement, he smiled and said: “I said it.’’

If there ever was a time for Rondo to take control of the fate of the Celtics, it is now. When he plays well, the Celtics win. When he displays confidence and total focus, they are a title-contending team. When those characteristics are lacking, the Celtics are who they were yesterday — an unpredictable bunch apparently in decline.

While it may be convenient to compare this Celtics team with the one that advanced to the NBA Finals last season as the fourth seed, Rivers insists the circumstances are different. The Celtics had no fear of the Cavaliers and Magic entering last year’s playoffs. Those teams didn’t leave an imprint on the Celtics’ chest like the Bulls and Heat have the past three days.

The Celtics are a wounded team, and the strong personalities in the locker room may prevent a resurrection. Pierce, the captain, said he will leave it to the players to figure out matters. Garnett seems disgusted with the team’s disposition, but unsure about how to change the course.

Allen’s role in the offense has diminished yet he won’t demand the ball or address his situation.

They all seem to be looking at each other and waiting, believing their former selves suddenly will reappear and wow the Copacabana like Sinatra in his heyday.

That’s the hope at least, but right now nobody has any solutions, only complaints.

“The frustration is high on our team right now,’’ Rivers said. “Honestly, we’ve just got to keep working on [coming back].

“It’s my job to figure it out. I gotta figure it out and then I gotta get them to stay with it.

“We played for seven minutes to start the game and turned around and said, ‘Oh, this is the Celtics,’ and it was gone. To me it was gone because a couple of things didn’t happen our way. I know what we have to do. We know what we have to do.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at

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