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Are Celtics now playing for pride?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  May 6, 2011 09:05 AM

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I think it's over. I think the Celtics will win Game 3 vs. the Heat, preserve some dignity, but ultimately fail. And if for some strange and unexpected reason they come back to win this series against the Miami Heat, it will have far more to do with the ineptitude of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade than it will with the brilliance of the Celtics.

Clearly, these are desperate times for the most decorated franchise in NBA history, and the Celtics themselves know it. Maybe that is why they Celtics seem intent on trotting out Shaquille O'Neal for Game 3 tomorrow night as if he were Willis Reed. O'Neal can provide only a small measure of help for these Celtics, assuming he can stay on the floor for any stretch of time at all, because their problems in the first two games of this series with Miami demonstrated far greater problems than many of us might have been willing to acknowledge.

The Celtics look old, folks. They look slow and uninspired. The Miami Heat are playing like a team on a mission, like the Bruins are against the Philadelphia Flyers, and one can only wonder now whether the window closed exactly when it was supposed to, in year three last summer, in Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Really, isn't that what this is about? It's not about Kendrick Perkins or the bench, Rajon Rondo or Shaq. It's about the fact that James and Wade are younger, faster, stronger and better than Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and there is not a single thing the Celtics can do about that unless they can turn back the effects of time.

What we seem to have here is precisely what colleague Dan Shaughnessy suggested in the immediate aftermath of Game 2: a changing of the guard.

For that matter, it's a changing of small forwards and power forwards, too.

Objectively, let's examine the first two games of this series. The Celtics were beaten to most every loose ball in Games 1 and 2, all while being dominated on the perimeter (critics of the Perkins trade might want to examine this). Miami has shot better than 45 percent from 3-point distance - during the regular season, Miami's number against the Celtics in this area was roughly 25 percent - and many of those jumpers have been relatively uncontested, if for no other reason than the fact the Celtics have been too slow to defend.

Meanwhile, on the other end, Rondo's inability to shoot consistently from 18 feet is again becoming a detriment. The Celtics were supposed to have a clear advantage in two areas in this series, at point guard and power forward, and they are, at best, 1-0-1, in those matchups. Rondo has been decent. Garnett has been fair. Meanwhile, Wade and James have taken turns ripping the Celtics apart.

Whether all of that can change is highly questionable, particularly with the Celtics demonstrating positively no fight.

In this way, of course, vice president of basketball operations Danny Ainge must similarly take his share of responsibility for a midseason maneuver than will now be questioned forever. At the time the Celtics dealt Perkins, the team assured us the deal was made with the present in mind. Shortly thereafter, Ainge told Jackie MacMullan of ESPN that, had Perkins been re-signed, he "probably" would not have made the deal. Whatever the truth, casting off Perkins has made the Celtics look terribly soft, something Ainge clearly did not account for.

That said, shame on the players, too. So Perkins got traded. So what? Garnett, Pierce and Allen are longtime veterans who have been through far worse. They should have been able to withstand it and push on. Instead, the Celtics look as though they have been neutered, Pierce and Rondo bickering with one another during a timeout while coach Doc Rivers addressed his team in futility. Are the Celtics serious with this kind of nonsense? At this stage, Rivers must feel like a substitute teacher at the local middle school. The kids are just plain ignoring him. He must be kicking himself for ever coming back.

Meanwhile, the principal acquisition for Perkins, Jeff Green, hardly looks ready for prime time. Nenad Krstic looks useless. The Celtics are starting to come up with a succession of ailments - Pierce's Achilles, Rondo's back, Allen's chest - which is never a good sign. Hurt teams are defeated teams. And this one looks like toast.

Think of it: a year ago, James was the one with a bad elbow and bad body language, turning in the worst playoff performance of his career in pivotal Game 5 of the second round series between the Celtics and Cavaliers. Now he is going 14 of 25 from the field and pumping his fist emphatically after driving to the basket with the force of a locomotive. Fans in Cleveland would have every right now to further believe that James out and out quit on them last spring, because the man who played Game 2 against the Celtics on Tuesday night was not the same man from a year ago.

LeBron believes in this Heat team. He believes in Wade, too.

The Celtics, on the other hand, do not currently seem to believe in themselves at all. It has been quite some time since they did. When Ainge assembled this nucleus during the summer of 2007, the general belief was that the Celtics had three years to win a title. The Celtics won the championship in Year One and fell just short in Year Three. Now they look as if they are ready for assisted living. Rasheed Wallace went out and Shaq came in. Perkins went out and Green came in. Garnett is far healthier this year than he was last, and yet the Celtics look far worse overall, the effects of time having taken their toll.

The window is not just closing now.

It is being locked.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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