By A.Sherrod Blakely
SAN ANTONIO The Boston Celtics are in a bit of a quandary these days.
They know their past success can't do a thing for them right now in terms of keeping them from sinking any further than they have the past couple of weeks.
But those past experiences, no matter how outdated they may seem, serve as the blueprint for a rescue-and-recovery mission that is sorely needed in order to salvage a season that has taken on a Titanic-esque feel lately.
"We know what the big picture is," said Paul Pierce, easily the most frustrated member of the Celtics these days. "We know what it takes."
But knowledge can only go so far without work.
And lately, it has been the C's -- not their opponents -- that have been getting worked over.
Coach Doc Rivers has been at this long enough to know regardless of how good a team is, they're going to have stretches where they won't play well.
As far as whether the Celtics will be better when the postseason arrives, Rivers has no worries about that.
"But I don't like losing games," he said. "And I don't like the way we're losing games."
When you look at the Celtics recent slump, there are a couple of things that stick out and to a large degree, have become major issues lately.
Late game execution
There are very few teams in the NBA in recent years whose ability to make the big play at the biggest moment of the game -- we'll call it "clutch quotient" -- can rival that of the Boston Celtics.
How many times have we seen Ray Allen deliver a late-game, dagger 3-pointer from the corner, in front of the opposing team's bench?
Or Kevin Garnett grabbing a tough rebound in traffic?
Or Paul Pierce going to his right for the step-back jumper, a shot that teams seem to know is coming but can't seem to stop?
You look back at the past couple of weeks, and you'll find few of those plays being made in close games.
Instead, we see Garnett fumbling the ball or being pushed aside by the likes of Tyler Hansbrough. We see Allen in the corner, but either his teammates don't see him or when they do see him, he misses.
Pierce hasn't been much better, either.
And then there's Rajon Rondo, the man who has the ball in his hands more than anybody.
Whether it's physical or mental, one thing is clear: Aside from Monday's 22-point, 8-assist effort in a loss to the Indiana Pacers, Rondo has been off his game lately.
Those problems occur throughout games, but lately have been problematic when the game is up for grabs in the fourth quarter.
"In the fourth quarter, if you don't get the job done, you'll probably lose the game," Rondo said.
Father Time gaining ground?
A year ago, there were lots of questions surrounding this team about whether they were too old to remain a title contender.
Well, advancing to the NBA Finals proved a lot of their naysayers wrong.
But when you see what has transpired recently with the C's, many of those same questions are once again being raised.
And remember, the Celtics are even older now -- and lately, they've looked and played like it.
"It's almost like we have great energy, and then run out," Rivers said.
Take a look at their last game, a 107-100 loss to the Indiana Pacers.
They opened the game with 33 points in the first quarter, scored just 16 in the second, went back up to 36 points in the third, but could muster up 15 in the decisive fourth quarter.
Pinning the slumping numbers on the second unit isn't fair.
When you look at Boston's 16-point second quarter, at least one member of the Big 4 was in the game for all but the first 40 seconds of the quarter. And in the fourth quarter, Boston had at least two of the Big 4 in the game for the entire period.
Scoring hasn't been where it should be for the Celtics, but that's the biggest issue impacting this team.
It has been the Celtics' defense weakening at a time when it needs to be strong.
And as they go about sorting through all the different problems they're having, shoring up their defense has to be the number one priority.
"I know we're dealing with different issues here, but we're a defensive team," Garnett said. "We gotta get back to that. We gotta get back into a rhythm."
Certainly the fact that they have been essentially playing with a patchwork lineup all season is an issue, but it doesn't explain or justify how a team that's so grounded in defense, has suddenly become a team where defense has become a liability down the stretch.
"When one thing doesn't go right, it's sort of a trickle effect," Garnett added. "So now, it's like a domino effect. We're going to continue to grind. We're going to continue to work to get this thing right."
It's as if they're taking a page from last season's playbook in which they stumbled down the stretch to close out the regular season, only to storm back in the playoffs and ultimately get to the NBA Finals where they came up short against the Los Angeles Lakers.
"We can't think about last year," Pierce said. "How we eased into the playoffs and got to the Finals. That's not going to work this year. There's a lot of teams hungry, playing well right now."
In addition to Chicago, which currently has the best record in the East, the surging Miami Heat, Tuesday night's loss in Cleveland aside, are starting put together a series of dominant performances -- the kind of performances many expected from them when LeBron James and Chris Bosh decided to take their talents to South Beach to team up with Dwyane Wade.
As much as those teams warrant the Celtics' attention, the C's have little choice but to keep their focus on themselves.
Because right now, what those teams do will have little consequence if the Celtics don't get their own house in order, right now.