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The only time the Boston Celtics don’t dominate is on the second night of back-to-back games. This has been the pattern throughout the season, and it continued Monday night in New Jersey, where the Nets beat the Celtics, 88-79. With the loss, the Celtics fell into a tie with the Chicago Bulls for first place in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics are now 6-8 on back-to-back second games, having lost their last five.
Despite the height of Nets power forward Kris Humphries (16 points, 15 rebounds) and center Brook Lopez (20 points, five rebounds, a steal and three blocks), the Celtics still out-played the Nets underneath basket. Boston out-rebounded New Jersey offensively and defensively, and out-scored New Jersey in the paint 30-24.
Unable to win the battles underneath the basket, New Jersey turned to the perimeter. The Nets drained 11 three-pointers against the Celtics, seven in the second half. Starting point guard Deron Williams was the most successful, knocking down four, including two in the fourth quarter. He drained a 28-footer off a timeout with 35 seconds left in the game to push the Nets lead to 86-79, killing the Celtics’ final push.
Williams finished the game with 16 points, nine assists, six boards and three steals.
The Nets also sank two three-pointers withing the final minute of the third quarter, turning a 61-61 tie into a six-point lead that they never relinquished. Starting shooting guard Anthony Morrow (15 points, 3-8 from beyond the arc) knocked one down, then guard Sundiata Gaines hit a 30-footer as time expired.
Through the first half, the Nets were shooting just 33 percent overall. But a 31-point third quarter in which the Nets shot 57 percent helped bump it up to 39.7 percent by the end of the game. The Celtics shot only slightly better, connecting 41.2 percent of the time.
In his second game back from injury, Glen Davis made a strong case for the NBA’s Sixth Man award. Davis scored 16 points off the bench and grabbed a team-high 14 rebounds.
In the second half, Davis twice hit jumpers after fighting through the pack for the offensive rebound. His first gave the Celtics a 52-51 lead with 4:11 left in the third quarter. His second cut the Nets lead to 81-79 with 3:09 left in the game.
Davis also saved an offensive rebound as it was going out of bounds on the New Jersey end-line in the fourth quarter. Davis leaped across the line, caught it and passed it behind-the-back to Jeff Green underneath the basket. Green laid it in to cut the Nets lead to 77-71.
Green finished the game with seven points, including a 16-foot fade-away jumper with 0.5 seconds left in the first quarter.
Davis finished the game with five offensive rebounds, tying for his season-highest (March 2 vs. the Phoenix Suns). His career-best is six offensive rebounds, accomplished against the Nets in a November 2007 game, then twice in March 2009 and once in March 2010.
Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett also scored in double digits for the Celtics. Allen led the team with 19 points, also grabbing three rebounds and dishing out four assists. He was the only Celtic to hit a three-pointer, knocking down two. His first killed an 8-0 New Jersey run in the second that saw a Celtics 29-22 lead become a 30-29 deficit. He also sprinted cross-court in the third to hit a quick-release 25-footer to give Boston a 59-58 lead.
Allen’s most emphatic bucket came in the fourth quarter. Garnett picked off a Lopez pass, then threw a long pass to Rajon Rondo (nine assists; left early in the third with what appeared to be a twisted ankle, but later returned) on the fast-break. Rondo waited for Allen to catch up, then handed it off to Allen for the slam dunk, cutting the Nets lead to 77-73.
Garnett scored 18 points on a team-best 9-14 shooting night. He scored the first six of Boston’s points, including knocking down a jumper for the 4-0 lead after Rondo stole Lopez’s inbound pass. in the third, Garnett set a pick for Paul Pierce (seven points, seven rebounds, five assists) at the top of the arc, then broke off the pick for the alley-oop dunk from Pierce. He also grabbed 8 rebounds.
The Nets took 16 more free-throw attempts than the Celtics, with Boston being called for 22 fouls to New Jersey’s 13. Three Celtics starters finished the game with four or more personal fouls, whereas none of the Nets starters did. Combine all this with two missed goal-tending violations by the Nets on Celtics shots that had already touched the backboard, and it is tempting to blame the Celtics’ loss on poor officiating.
The fact remains, however, that the Celtics, even when they can rest their starters the night before, are just not good on the back end of back-to-backs. Age seems the most likely cause: the Celtics were 11-7 in such games last season, 14-3 the year before and 16-3 the year before that (2007-2008, the first year for the “Big Three”).
Whatever the cause, the Celtics need to figure this problem out, and quickly. The Celtics have five more back-to-backs among their 17 remaining regular-season games. Two back-to-backs feature teams with winning records on the second night (New Orleans Hornets on Mar. 19, Atlanta Hawks on April 1). Now tied for first place with the Bulls, these five games could prove crucial in the final seeding before the playoffs.