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Celtics are their own worst enemy

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  May 21, 2012 09:53 AM

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Mock the Miami Heat, if you choose, but the Celtics today are in the very same boat. They are wounded. They are tied through four games in their second-round playoff series. They have two of the remaining three games at home.

For now, the most obvious difference is that the Celtics are playing an inferior team in the Philadelphia 76ers, who overcame an 18-point third-quarter deficit on Friday night to hand the Celtics a devastating loss. The Celtics scored the first 14 points of the game. The Celtics appeared in complete control. And yet the Celtics now find themselves in a best-of-3 affair after a collapse that was nothing short of catastrophic.

Can the Celtics still win this series? Of course. Will they? Probably. But any thoughts of another trip to the NBA Finals took a major hit over the weekend, Boston's potential supremacy in the Eastern Conference now very much in doubt.

Here's the problem with the Celtics: they fall asleep too much. At least they have through the early rounds during these playoffs. In 10 postseason games thus far, the Celtics have two performances we can classify as complete, the others all falling into a pile we might classify as lackluster or ugly or downright poor.

So are the Celtics just sprinters, more comfortable playing in short bursts? Is this the sign of age? Or are the Celtics merely the kind of team that plays down to the level of their opponents, sometimes oscillating between good and bad in a mere matter of seconds?

Regardless, Friday's Game 4 loss to the Sixers was inexcusable for a team possessing the experience the Celtics do, particularly when we examine the specifics. The Celtics led by 17 when Kevin Garnett and Elton Brand drew double technical fouls near midcourt. Garnett subsequently missed his next three shots - none of them near the basket - and the Sixers were within four by the end of the quarter.

So, is that all it takes for the Celtics to be thrown off their game, for someone to stand up to them and push them around a little? Had Miami been the team that blew an 18-point lead with the chance to take a commanding 3-1 series lead with Game 5 scheduled on its home court, we would be talking today about the Heat's inability to close, about Miami's lack of killer instinct, about Miami's questionable skill to close.

But because these Celtics have won a championship - four years ago, albeit - we just chalk it up to a lapse.

Fact: the Celtics of 2007-08 never would have lost Game 4. Not in a million years. Those Celtics might have erased a huge deficit, as they did in Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers, but they never would have imploded the way these Celtics did on Friday. These Celtics looked far more like the Lakers of that series, left to explain a game they had no excuse losing.

Less than 48 hours later, LeBron James and the Miami Heat went out and won a 101-93 decision over the Indiana Pacers, on the road, to reclaim home court advantage. James became just the 12th player in the last 25 years to record as many as 40 points and 18 rebounds in a playoff game. The remaining 11 instances almost all came from a succession of 7-footers - Shaquille O'Neal (five), Hakeem Olajuwon (two), David Robinson (one), Dwight Howard (one) and Dirk Nowitzki (one) - leaving Charles Barkley as the only real comparison.

Oh, and for what it's worth, Barkley had one assist, one steal and one block in his performance, for the Phoenix Suns against Seattle in 1993. James had nine assists, two steals and two blocks.

Short of James' business partners in this market - Messrs. John Henry and Tom Werner, among others - nobody cares for him here, and with good reason. But give James this much: on Sunday, when he needed to be, he was awesome.

Be it Garnett, Paul Pierce or Rajon Rondo, someone on the Celtics tonight is likely to similarly lead the way in a Celtics victory, though that is hardly the point. Thus far, the Celtics have made this postseason far more difficult on themselves than they have had to. The Celtics had a chance to eliminate the Atlanta Hawks in five games and let that affair carelessly slip through their fingers, and they had the chance to do the same with these Sixers. Now this series is headed for six games at a minimum, all amid increasing concerns about the health of Avery Bradley (shoulder) or the legs of just about anybody else wearing Celtics green.

Admittedly, a championship this year has never been a realistic goal, but that is hardly the point. For any team, in Boston or anywhere else, the goal is to go as far as you possibly can, to maximize your talent and potential. For the Celtics, thanks to the luck of the draw, the road to the was all but paved with yellow bricks for them, a succession of Eastern Conference contenders taking major hits with the injuries to Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose and Chris Bosh, among others.

For sure, the Celtics could very well find themselves in the Finals again soon.

But it certainly would be nice if they got out of their own way.

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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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