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Celtics face three big challenges

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  June 1, 2012 12:40 PM

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Should this indeed be the end of an era, the truth, as always, will rest somewhere in the middle. The Celtics will be able to point to themselves as surely as they can LeBron James or those dastardly men in stripes. Certainly, they will point to Father Time.

In the interest of fairness, then, let us all agree on something: if the Celtics play as they did on Wednesday in an epic 115-111 overtime loss, there will be no shame in that. The Celtics can cut ties with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett can retire - if that is what each chooses - and no one can say that the Celtics failed to meet expectations, that they cowered, that they quit.

As Globe columnist Bob Ryan so aptly put it weeks ago, the Celtics are, after all, in the fifth year of a three-year plan.

What happens from here is anybody's guess, the Celtics now facing the indisputable reality of needing to win the next two games against these Miami Heat, on Friday night and on Sunday at the TD Garden. Anything less would almost certainly spell their demise. What the Celtics now face is a list of challenges that seem insurmountable, presented here in no particular order of importance:

1. The officials. Everyone from Danny Ainge (following Game 2) to the most rabid Celtics fans are ranting about the latest NBA conspiracy, and no one can dispute that the league has (and always will have) a credibility problem with regard to the officiating. In basketball, complaints about the officiating go all the way back to the peach basket, though the Celtics in this series have their share of legitimate complaints.

Fact: the refs blew the call on Rajon Rondo's overtime drive. The rash of technical fouls with which the Celtics were hit in Game 1 was an embarrassment. At home this postseason, Miami has attempted an average of 32.4 free throws per game, a number that leads all teams in the NBA. And since the start of the 2001 playoffs, only three NBA players have attempted as many as 24 free throws in a game, two of them (LeBron James and Dwyane Wade) currently playing for the Heat. (The other is Dirk Nowitzki.)

Following Game 2, even Celtics coach Doc Rivers noted that Miami shot 47 free throws to the Celtics' 28. Of course, no one in Boston complained four years ago when the Celtics shot 38 free throws to the Los Angeles' Lakers' 10 in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, choosing instead to mock Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who whined about the fact that Leon Powe (Jackson called him Pow) had more free throw attempts (13) than the entire Lakers squad.

If you think the officiating is going to flip in Game 3, don't be so sure. In the NBA, star players get the star treatment at home and on the road. This postseason, among the 16 NBA playoffs teams, the Celtics rank 13th in average free throw attempts at home (20.7). On the road, the Heat rank fifth (24.6). That means Miami still could end up with more free throws.

2. Age and inconsistency. These go hand in hand for obvious reasons. The older you are, the harder is to fire up those engines on a regular basis. If you really want to examine it, the Celtics have not played two consecutive strong games this postseason. They have not won two consecutive games since Game 6 against Atlanta and Game 1 against Philadelphia. On Wednesday night, Kevin Garnett played 45 minutes, the most he has ever played in a Celtics uniform.

Ray Allen played rather well on Wednesday night, but can he put together two good games at this stage? And can Paul Pierce, who has fouled out in two of the last three games, come even remotely close to keeping up with younger, more athletic players like Andre Iguodala (of Philadelphia) and, of course, James?

As for Rajon Rondo, whose 53-minute, 44-point, 10-assist, eight-rebound performance in Game 2 will go down in history, there are questions there, too. Rondo certainly opened eyes on Wednesday, shooting from the outside with such deadly accuracy that ESPN Chris Broussard rightfully categorized his Game 2 performance as the NBA's "worst nightmare." If Rondo can start making jump shots (or even scoring) with any regularity in this series, the balance could shift considerably. But as we all know, Rondo's resume is littered with examples of erratic behavior, on the court and off.

The bottom line: the Celtics seemed to hit Miami with their best shot in Game 2. And lost.

3. Miami is the better team. Rondo was the best player on the floor in Game 2, but James and Dwyane Wade remain the two best players in the series. That was true last year, when Miami won in five games, and it is true now. Add in the play of Miami's role players and the Celtics' injuries - most notably to Avery Bradley - and the Celtics don't seem to have the front-end talent or the depth to beat the Heat.

Short of getting significant contributions from their bench players - particularly Mickael Pietrus - the Celtics cannot play much better (if at all) in Game 3. Their best chance may be for Miami to play worse. But since Miami fell behind the Indiana Pacers 2-1 in their second round series, James and Wade have played as if on a mission, ripping their way through the Celtics defense at critical parts of games and attacking Boston on the interior.

With regard to James in particular, the Celtics basically did everything right against him in Game 2. They held him to 7 of 20 shooting from the field and essentially forced him to beat them from the free throw line. (He missed four free throws in the final 15 minutes.) They kept the game tight and put pressure on him at the end, James missing a pair of potential game-winning shots as time expired.

Again, despite that, the Celtics lost.

All of which cannot help but make one wonder if time is now running out on them.

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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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