In Game 1, anger.
In Game 2, pain.
In Game 3, elation.
In Game 4, confusion.
It was that last expression, late Monday at an anxiety-filled TD Garden, that may prove most troubling for the Celtics.
Control of an Eastern Conference semifinal series was still within their grasp when they set up an inbounds play with 19.5 seconds left and the score tied, 86-86. These are moments in which the Celtics have thrived — moments that defined them as savvy, steady, smart and, in 2008, champions.
This time, there was shocking disarray. As the play broke down, Pierce frowned and fretted and motioned at his teammates. Finally, reluctantly, he launched a well-guarded 20-foot fadeaway that bounced away as time expired. The game went into overtime, and the pulled away for a that pushed the Celtics to the brink of elimination.
The Heat holds a 3-1 series lead, with three chances to close it out, two at home. The Celtics’ playoff run will probably end soon and, perhaps with it, their era of conference dominance.
Kevin Garnett turns 35 next week. Pierce will be 34 in October. Ray Allen turns 36 in July. Each star occasionally still shows flashes of greatness. But they no longer seem capable of playing at a consistently elite level through a seven-game series — at least not against a younger, equally talented and more athletic opponent.
Garnett was splendid in a Game 3 victory, with a 28-point, 18-rebound effort that recalled his earlier days. But that line now stands as the aberration, not the norm. Garnett was punchless in Monday’s defeat, going 1 of 10 from the field. He went 3 for 9 in Game 1. He is shooting .424 (25 for 59) in the series.
Allen had a fantastic Game 1, with 25 points. He averaged 13 points in the next three games, going 11 for 30 from the field.
Pierce remains the most consistently dangerous scorer of the three. But he was taken out of his game — figuratively, then literally — by the Heat’s physical defense in Game 1, and slowed by a foot injury in Game 2.
The Celtics’ fourth (and youngest) star, Rajon Rondo, is a great passer and defender, but not a scorer.
The scoring punch that Boston hoped to have from Jeff Green has not materialized. Glen Davis, whose bench play was invaluable in the past, has been a dud.
The Celtics are not as precise as they once were, nor as intimidatingly efficient. They lost Game 4 with poor shooting (.429) and costly turnovers (18, which Miami converted into 28 points).
“It’s frustrating, because we had so many opportunities,” Coach Doc Rivers said, adding: “And then not to execute a play at the end. That doesn’t mean we win it, but we should have gotten a better shot.”
These are the usual laments of a team that is past its prime or missing key elements or simply overmatched.
Defensively, the Celtics remain an elite team, but their offense has degraded since their championship run in 2008. They ranked ninth in offensive efficiency in 2007-8 (their first season with Pierce, Allen and Garnett), and sixth in 2008-9. Last season, they fell to 15th and this season to 19th.
The Celtics averaged 106.2 points per 100 possessions this season, a drop of 4 points from 2007-8. The figure has slipped to 105.8 in the playoffs, ranking Boston sixth among the seven teams that are alive.
It is hard to imagine the Celtics getting any better without an infusion of young talent. That will be difficult. Boston has $65.8 million in committed salaries for next season, not counting a potential new contract for Green, who will be a restricted free agent. Two of their younger rotation players, Davis and Delonte West, will also be free agents. Jermaine O’Neal (who turns 33 in October) remains on the books, and Shaquille O’Neal (39) has a $1.4 million option to return.
The Celtics will not have salary-cap room until 2012, when the contracts of Garnett ($21.2 million) and Allen ($10 million) expire.
If the Celtics wanted to plunge immediately into rebuilding, they could trade Allen or Garnett. It seems more likely that they will hold onto the core group for one more run and try to fill in around them, as they did by signing the two O’Neals last summer. The thinking could change if Rivers walks away this summer, which is possible.
The Celtics’ championship window, which once seemed so wide, has been reduced to a razor-thin beam of fading light.