It’s becoming disturbingly clear that either the Celtics are one of the biggest victims of lack of chemistry from the abbreviated training camp and preseason or fans are witnessing the methodical decline of the Big Three.
In either event, the Celtics are a shell of their former selves, although they insist their troubles can be corrected quickly enough to make it a fulfilling season. After nine games and another fourth-quarter meltdown last night, that is highly debatable.
The Celtics spent the whole night chasing the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, only to falter in the final 25 seconds in a 90-85 loss. And after another disheartening defeat, Boston has yet to beat a team with a winning record or one that reached the playoffs last season.
The Celtics fell behind, 10-2, and trailed by as many as 13 only to make another furious but futile rally in the final minutes. With 25 seconds left and the game tied at 85, the Mavericks gave the ball to their franchise player, Dirk Nowitzki, who had spent most of the night suffocated by Kevin Garnett.
Coming off a pick-and-roll, Nowitzki (16 points on 5-for-11 shooting) dribbled past Garnett, lunged toward the basket, and flipped in an acrobatic layup nearly falling down while being fouled by Brandon Bass for a conventional 3-point play with 5.1 seconds left. Then the Celtics couldn’t even get off a shot attempt, Ray Allen bobbling a low Rajon Rondo pass out of bounds and the game was gone. It was another disappointing loss for a team looking for any evidence that it’s a contender in the Eastern Conference.
“We’re not playing easy teams, I want y’all to understand that,’’ Garnett said. “The teams that come in here with beat up records [Dallas entered 5-5], they play hard and have a lot of pride. We were playing the world champs tonight, it don’t get any bigger than that. That’s where we are, we’re going to have to continue to work at this thing to get it better.
“This is not easy. I know we made it look easy in the past. It’s not easy by far.’’
Rondo led the Celtics with 24 points, but a 24-6 third-quarter Mavericks run put them in control. And though the game was tied at 77 with 6:05 left, the Celtics had three possessions to go ahead over the next two minutes and wasted them all with missed jumpers.
Paul Pierce tied the game at 85 with a leaning 3-pointer with 25 seconds left, a slice of magic after a miserable night. Before that shot, Pierce had scored 4 points on 1-for-4 shooting and had sat a large chunk of the fourth quarter although he was healthy. He is 5 for 22 shooting in the past two games and did not speak with the media after the game.
“He’s trying, he’s not playing great but it’s not like he’s showing up to not play great,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I know he’ll come around and we just have to hold the fort until he does.’’
The game turned early in the third quarter, when the Celtics seemingly were beginning to resemble the team they believe they are. They began the second half on a 4-0 spurt to take a 45-42 lead, and that’s when Rick Carlisle became the second opposing coach in the past eight days to get ejected for running to midcourt to argue a non-call.
Last week it was Washington’s Flip Saunders who was tossed for disputing a Greg Stiemsma blocked shot on Rashard Lewis. Last night Carlisle had an issue with Garnett holding Nowitzki tightly on a pick-and-roll, and he charged official Josh Tiven.
Tiven called the double technical at 10:14 mark of the third. Two Ray Allen technical free throws extended the Celtics’ lead to 5, but Boston then shut down offensively, scoring 12 points in the final 10 minutes as the Mavericks raced past them with a 24-6 run.
And Nowitzki did not score during the surge. Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood, and Delonte West did most of the damage. A Jason Terry 3-pointer from the corner off the fast break gave the Mavericks a 66-53 lead with two minutes left in the third, a disastrous stretch for the Celtics.
For the fifth time in nine games, the Celtics trailed by double digits in the first half, forcing them to play near perfect ball in the second half.
“I didn’t like it,’’ Allen said of another slow start. “It didn’t feel good. Starting the first quarter, the way we didn’t score points. But, again, we had great looks offensively. I don’t know what you attribute it to, but having four days off we couldn’t do that. We know where we need to be and everyone in there is optimistic and ready to get the win.’’
The Celtics turned in one of their better defensive quarters of the season in the second, chasing and nearly catching the Mavericks. A pressing, double-teaming defense forced five turnovers and limited Dallas to 30.4 percent shooting in the period.
The issue wasn’t defense but rebounding. The Mavericks flat-out embarrassed the Celtics on the boards, 43-35, collecting 12 offensive rebounds in the game and 17 second-chance points. Haywood finished with 11 rebounds in 29 minutes; once again the Celtics’ Jermaine O’Neal fizzled, finishing with 2 points and 3 rebounds in 22 minutes.
“I don’t care about offensive rebounds; I care about defensive rebounds,’’ Rivers said. “Because we get defensive rebounds, we win the game. The offensive rebounds are what they are. I do want them, but that’s not a number I look at a whole bunch. I look at the defensive rebounds, and we didn’t do a very good job there.’’Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashburn14