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Reality body-checks Celtics

January 11, 2009|MARK HEISLER

You knew the Celtics were in trouble when the losses began coming, puncturing their myth of invincibility -- or "perfection," a word that actually got into the media, showing the heights the delusion reached -- and Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett started talking about the need to get their "swagger" back . . .

. . . Just before they headed to Cleveland for Friday's showdown with the Cavaliers.

Some showdown.

Reeling and shaken, the Celtics couldn't even meet whatever minimal expectations remained.

They were only marginally competitive, getting no closer than eight points in the fourth quarter, trailing by 20 before falling, 98-83, to the younger, stronger, deeper insurgents -- the Celtics' seventh loss in the last nine games.

In the key matchup, in which the players actually guarded each other, LeBron James greased Pierce, 38-11.

As if to show how desperate the Celtics were, Coach Doc Rivers doggedly had his players keep fouling Ben Wallace, even after he took Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen out.

"I said, 'Look guys, we put money in the bank with the 19-game winning streak,' " Rivers said. " 'We're making a withdrawal that we didn't want to make right now, but we are.' "

Actually, the Cavaliers were the ones who made the withdrawal, looking more like they drove an armored truck through the front door and sacked the place.

Before the game Pierce said, "I think the confidence is still there. It's a long season and that's what we try to tell each other."

He thought the confidence was still there? That's what they try to tell each other?

Crises of confidence are nothing new. The Celtics are going through something more important, a reality check.

In their case, it's more like a return to Earth, as described by the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy:

"[They] were going to be better than the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls . . . on their way to being the 2007 Patriots or even the 1972 Dolphins . . . Ted Williams in 1941 . . . JFK in 1960 . . . the Beatles in 1964. . . . Then they went to Los Angeles on Christmas Day and got pushed around by Pau Gasol and some other guys from the mean streets of Malibu. They haven't been the same since. . . . No more talk about immortality. Or perfection."

In real life, none of it was real life.

The Celtics weren't merely dependent on three players, ages 33, 32 and 31, they had little else.

Their bench was vestigial (in the six losses before Cleveland, their starters outscored opposing starters by seven points while their reserves were outscored by 55).

Rajon Rondo, who seemed sure to be their fourth All-Star (at which point, they would have asked how Kendrick Perkins could be snubbed), began to come under attack after the Lakers put Kobe Bryant on him so he could sag off him.

Then there was the fact everyone suddenly hated them, after going through their first two months surfing on adrenaline, jabbering at opponents.

The Celtics are actually as classy as classy can be -- off the floor, where their players and coaches are unfailingly gracious and straightforward.

On the floor, it was another story.

"We're not here to be liked," Garnett said at one point, adding that they ignore a lot of things opponents say, "because half the guys who are talking, we don't even know their names."

Here are some names to write down, then.

In the loss at Portland, Greg Oden body-blocked the gentlemanly Allen off the floor and LaMarcus Aldridge slapped the not-always-so-gentlemanly Garnett across the back of his head.

Before the loss at Charlotte, Bobcats Coach Larry Brown wrote on his whiteboard: "Don't get punk'd."

Rookie D.J. Augustin told the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell that the Celtics try to "intimidate you and punk you," but if you stand up to them, they'll "fold."

Happily for the Celtics, there's an answer for their problems: Find two more players.

It's all but assumed in Boston that Stephon Marbury will join the Celtics as soon as the Knicks settle his deal. With the players signing off on Marbury in the media, Garnett said he's "not opposed" to reuniting with him. There's one problem. With Knicks President Donnie Walsh aware of Boston's interest, he can hang onto Marbury all season, unless the Celtics give him something.

Not that the team was worried. Rivers was still insisting he was "very, very comfortable" with what he had last week as they let Dikembe Mutombo, who called them first, sign with Houston.

Happily for the Celtics, they don't need stars, just someone better than Tony Allen, Eddie House, Leon Powe and Glen Davis, and that's doable.

After months of adulation, management and the players had to clear their heads.

As Shaughnessy wrote, Garnett, Pierce and Allen may have been confused by headlines about the Big Three government bailout.

Here's more good news: The pressure's off. It's on the Lakers, Cavaliers and Orlando Magic, who are all ahead of them now.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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