Celtics Taking On the Look of a Champion No Longer

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.

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Round 1 to Wade and the Heat, 99-90 Over Celtics

He also knew that wouldn’t matter in the playoffs.

And Game 1 — which seemed more like Round 1 — of what’s already an emotionally charged series went to Wade and the .

Wade scored 38 points on 14 of 21 shooting, James Jones set a Miami postseason record with 25 points off the bench, and the Heat beat the 99-90 on Sunday to open their Eastern Conference semifinal series.

“We’re going to have to fight for every inch, every game we get,” Wade said. “Right now, we won Game 1. We’re supposed to. We’ll go back and focus on winning Game 2. We’re at home, we have home-court advantage. They’re just trying to come in and steal one like they’ve done in the past. So it’s our job to come out with the same mentality in the next one.”

finished with 22 points, six rebounds and five assists for Miami, which led by as many as 19 before a fiery finish that saw plenty of players jawing at each other — more than that in some cases. Paul Pierce was ejected with 7 minutes left, after picking up two technicals in skirmishes with Wade and Jones within a span of 59 seconds.

Ray Allen scored 25 points for Boston, which lost for the first time in five games this postseason. Pierce scored 19 and Delonte West finished with 10 for the Celtics, while Rajon Rondo and were held to a combined 14 points on 6-for-19 shooting.

“There’s so many things we need to do to get better,” Allen said. “I think everybody in that locker room knows that, just from a small conversation we just had.”

Game 2 is Tuesday in Miami.

Given how Boston ousted Miami last season, and ended James’ playoff runs with Cleveland in 2008 and 2010, these teams have history — and more than a bit of dislike, and that was apparent. It was physical throughout, with West earning a technical and picking up a flagrant foul along the way, before things really got hot in the fourth.

Pierce took offense with a hard foul by Jones, each getting double-technicals there, and Pierce and Wade — who have a bit of history themselves — renewed acquaintances not long after that.

Referee Ed Malloy called both for double-technicals, and Pierce was screaming as he departed. Boston coach said he thought Jones and Wade went at Pierce too aggressively on the two plays that ended his forward’s night.

“I thought both were flagrant fouls, personally, and I don’t think we should react to either one,” Rivers said.

Wade acted like he didn’t hear what Pierce said to him on the play with 7 minutes left, dismissing it as “gibberish.” Crew chief Dan Crawford said Pierce’s second technical was merited because he directed profanity at Wade.

“And in the rulebook, that is a verbal taunt,” Crawford said. “And it just so happened to be Pierce’s second technical foul.”

Pierce’s first technical, Crawford said, came after he made contact with Jones during a dead ball period. Rivers said he knew the Heat would try to play physical ball, but said what he saw Sunday didn’t apply.

“That’s chippy,” Rivers said. “That ain’t physical.”

Countered Wade: “Very interesting that Doc said that.”

Pierce did not speak with reporters postgame.

After he departed, the Celtics tried to rally. Allen made a 3-pointer to get within 90-82, but Chris Bosh and Wade had Miami’s next two baskets, restoring a double-digit lead that wasn’t again seriously threatened.

“Every game is going to go like this,” Wade said. “We look forward to the challenge.”

Wade averaged 12.8 points on 28 percent shooting against the Celtics in four regular-season matchups, his worst numbers in both categories against any opponent this season.

Whatever wasn’t working then, well, it was fixed for Game 1.

He had nine field goals and 23 points by halftime — while the entire Boston starting five combined for eight field goals and 21 points in the first 24 minutes. He had a steal to set up Mario Chalmers’ layup with 0.1 seconds left in the first quarter that put Miami up 20-14, and added a more spectacular buzzer-beater near halftime.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra wanted a 20-second timeout to set up the final possession of the half, only to get overruled — surely without complaint, either. Wade waved it off, then kept waving his arm to clear his teammates away, setting up a drive past West for a bank shot with 0.8 ticks remaining that put Miami ahead 51-36 at the break.

Boston was completely out of sorts, perhaps rusty from sitting around for a week after sweeping the , and partly because Miami’s defense bottled up everything the Celtics tried. Rondo was on the bench with three fouls for the final 11 minutes of the half, and the Celtics missed 20 of their first 26 shots from the field.

“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is beat the Boston Celtics in basketball, the game of basketball, four times,” Spoelstra said. “We have one of them right now.”

Jones drew Rondo’s third foul on a play where he ended up sprawled out under the Boston basket, grabbing his lower back and writhing in pain. Jones inflicted hurt the rest of the quarter, shooting 4 for 5 from 3-point range in the second period alone.

“JJ probably had the best game of anybody,” James said.

Jones took down Pierce and Allen in the 3-point shootout at All-Star weekend — and some of that same form returned Sunday.

“Someone had to step up,” Jones said. “I got some good looks. All of our playmakers got me good looks and I was able to knock them down with confidence because these guys trust me in the big moments.”

NOTES: Including the April 10 victory, Miami has now won consecutive meetings with Boston for the first time since early 2007. … Boston was without (calf) and Miami remained without Udonis Haslem (foot), both still out with injuries, though it seems both could be returning at some point in this series — maybe even Tuesday. … Plenty of celebrities showed up, including Diddy, and rappers Drake and Rick Ross. … Rivers, on former Boston assistant Tom Thibodeau winning the NBA’s coach of the year award: “He came in and did his job.”

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Celtics Hoping for Full Shaq Practice on Friday

WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) — The hope to have back at practice on Friday.

Celtics coach said O’Neal would do a “skeleton” workout on Thursday and “hopefully” join the team on Friday for its final workout before Sunday’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the .

O’Neal has played a total of 5 minutes, 29 seconds since Feb. 1 because of problems with his right calf and Achilles tendon.

The Celtics didn’t need him in the first round, when they swept the in four games.

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