By A.Sherrod Blakely
MIAMI A year ago this time, there were questions about the Boston Celtics' toughness, about their ability to lock in to opponents, about whether they had any Celtic pride left.
Well, here we are once again asking a lot of those same questions following a 100-77 drilling at the hands of the Miami Heat on Sunday.
The margin of defeat was the largest any Celtics team has endured this season, and it came in what was arguably the biggest game of the season.
Red flags, anyone?
Celtics Nation isn't the only one unsure of what to make of this team right now.
"Especially going into the playoffs," said a visibly dejected Paul Pierce, who had a team-high 24 points. "You expect a little more urgency, especially in the last week of the season. But we understand what it is. The hustle game, it's killing us."
Miami outscored Boston 18-3 in second-chance points. They rebounding margin was plus 16 for the Heat. Miami had a 12-3 advantage in fast-break points.
It was without question the most dominated the C's have been in a game this season.
"They just outplayed us," said Jermaine O'Neal, who had zero rebounds for the second straight game.
Of course, his struggles by no means should be considered an isolated issue.
As you look at the entire Celtics roster, all of them contributed to Sunday's slaughter.
And the lopsided nature of the game was surprising when you consider the Celtics opened the game with an 8-0 run that was soon extended to an 11-2 lead. But as the quarter wore on Boston found itself holding on for dear life, and it ended with the Celtics on top by a single point, 22-21.
"The first quarter, we were playing great," said coach Doc Rivers. "We got away from what we were doing. We got the lead and I thought we just stopped doing exactly what we were doing on offense; that stretch of turnovers gave them life and got them back in the game."
Said Pierce: "We went away from what we were doing best. At the end of the day, today was all about a great game - a grind game - and they won that war."
Normally, such games work in the Celtics' favor.
But as the playoffs loom around the corner, Boston is starting to come up short more often than not when facing the better teams in such gritty, grimy-type games.
And they're coming up short against teams like Chicago and Miami, the kind of teams they'll have to go through in order to bring Banner 18 back to Boston.
The Bulls loss, last Thursday night, wasn't all that big a shock. No one in the NBA has been playing better than the Bulls lately. And even if the Celtics had won, they would have still needed some help in order to unseat the Bulls for the top spot in the East.
But the Heat loss really hurts.
Boston (55-25) won the first three meetings against Miami this season, and began Sunday's game playing for the sweep.
But after the Heat closed out the first playing well, they just continued to pull ahead and eventually take over the game - and with it, the inside track for the second seed in the East.
Miami (56-24) must simply win its two remaining games - both on the road at Atlanta and Toronto, respectively - in order to finish at No. 2.
As for the Celtics (55-25), they find themselves limping into the playoffs for the second straight season.
While there are certainly some who will take solace in the fact that they did essentially the same thing last year and managed to get to the NBA Finals, players and coaches agree the hole they've dug for themselves this year is much deeper - and will be a lot more challenge to come out of.
"It's a different team," said Rajon Rondo. "Not the same. I don't compare it at all to last year, or the year we won it. Everything is different."
Everything is different.
So far, not for the better.