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7.13.2009

Celtics Have to Do More than Score

1981-82 Boston Celtics

Bill Fitch tried to deliver his message very early. The game wasn't even two minutes old when he called a timeout to discuss defense, a subject the Boston Celtics have come to treat with total disdain.

First Calvin Natt was allowed a back-door layup with no Boston weak-side help for Larry Bird. Then Kelvin Ransey blew by Tiny Archibald for a layup down the lane, unbothered by man or beast. It was here, with Portland leading the Celtics by a 6-2 score, that Fitch attempted to set his team straight.

They didn't respond, but why should yesterday have been different from any other game in the past 17? Ever since the 99-98 triumph in Landover on Dec. 18, the Celtics have become a flat-out rotten defensive basketball team. Bird was able to see them through for a while with his noted seven-game spurt, but in the past two games, they have received exactly what they deserved. First there was a 118-106 loss to Seattle on Friday night. And now, for the first time this season, a second straight loss, this one a 123-119 defeat administered by the Trail Blazers yesterday.

Sure, Portland played a fine game. The Blazers received outstanding efforts from backcourt men Ransey (33 points, 10 assists) and Billy Ray Bates (15 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter), as well as a 20-point, nine- rebound contribution from the rugged Natt, a display that far transcended the stats. In addition, Portland did all the right team things down the stretch. The Blazers were far more ready to play than Boston, and like their Northwest adversaries on Friday night, they deserved the victory.

But that does not excuse the Celtics, who are in a complete mental slump. In both the Seattle and Portland losses, they were beaten by a mentally tougher team in their own building. World champions? Right now they'd be lucky to be considered city champs.

Don't be misled by the final score, a tally created by a long off-balance desperation three-pointer by Bird. The visitors had taken command of this game midway through the final period, expanding a 93-91 lead with 7:16 left to 103-95 on a breathtaking fast-break soar by Bates, who was every bit the awesome folk hero of the '80 playoffs on this occasion. That basket, which followed a missed Bird 20-footer, came with 4:11 left, and the Celtics would never again come closer than six points until the final Bird heave with three seconds to play.

Boston had managed to lead at both the halftime (55-54) and three-quarter (83-82) junctures despite receiving nothing offensively from Bird, who has officially reentered the ranks of the mortal with 15-for-41 shooting his last two games. The only reason for their status was the sensational offensive play of Robert Parish, who had scored 28 of his season-high 36 points by the end of the third period. Without Parish's arching turnarounds, the Celtics' flame would have been extinguished early in this one.

Indeed, it was a Parish turnaround from the right at 11:07 that provided the home squad with its final lead, 85-84. But Bates ("I think I played a pretty fair game") came through with a very strong left-to-right drive for a three-point play. Parish answered with two free throws, but Bates matched those two at 8:32 for a nonrefundable 89-87 lead.

In addition to their continuing defensive problems (all but two of Portland's 11 third-period field goals were on close-in shots of various types), the Celtics were again self-destructive at the foul line. Consider that from 97-91, Portland (6:25), to 107-100, Portland (2:18), Cedric Maxwell (three times), Parish and Kevin McHale each missed one of two free-throw attempts.

Portland was clearly the aggressor from the start, and it didn't take long for the Blazers to realize that it would be wise to take the ball to the hoop. Ransey was particularly destructive in the first half, scoring 18 points. "We played a lot of I Got Mine' defense for 40 minutes," said Fitch, "and now I'm out of my mind."

Right now, the Celtics are completely flat. Call it the January blahs. Call it championship complacency. Call it too much faith in a Let-Larry-Do-It offense. One more loss at home and we can call it a crisis.

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