Just wasn't meant to be for Rondo-less C's

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This night belonged to Brook Lopez and the Brooklyn Nets.Some nights it's just not meant to be and, for the Boston Celtics, that was encapsulated in a maddening sequence late in Thursday's loss to the Brooklyn Nets.

Paul Pierce, who had put Boston on his back while scoring 11 of his team-high 22 points in the third quarter as the Celtics rallied out of a 13-point deficit, drove hard to the basket in a three-point game, but a layup attempt spun off the rim as he was fouled with 34 seconds to play.

If Pierce gets the layup to drop, he's shooting a free throw with a chance to tie the game. Instead, he missed both freebies and, frustrated with himself, Pierce mindlessly fouled Joe Johnson with 29 seconds to go (enough time that Boston could have played for a defensive stop in a one-possession game).

Pierce could be seen owning up to his error on the Boston bench soon after. But he was far from the only reason the Celtics dropped a 102-97 decision to the Nets on Thursday. Maybe the biggest culprit was an excruciating 4 1/2-minute stretch in which Rajon Rondo-less Boston couldn't generate fourth-quarter points while Brooklyn rallied from a five-point hole and surged ahead.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he liked all the looks Boston got in the fourth quarter, but his team missed six consecutive shots (and turned the ball over on another possession) as the Nets rallied back. Four of those shots came beyond 18 feet, and only one -- a Pierce 5-foot runner -- came while attacking the basket.

Rivers wondered if the original double-digit deficit -- a direct result of Brooklyn's domination on the glass -- left Boston without enough in the tank for the final frame after the Celtics scrapped their way back in the third quarter.

"I was disappointed with our effort in the first half. I thought [the Nets] just kicked our butts in the first half," said Rivers. "I thought they were more physical, went over our backs, pushed us around. In the second half, we did that. And the fourth quarter, I've got to tell you, I thought we had great shots, we just couldn't make any of them. I mean, we had point-blank, wide open looks at the elbow, we missed layups, we missed free throws. And maybe that was because we had to fight out of a ditch, out of a hole in the third quarter. So, I don't know why, [but] I liked our looks, I liked how we finished the game overall, we just didn't win it."

The Celtics won't want to watch tape of this one as the team simply wasn't able to sustain 48 minutes of consistent basketball. The Nets generated more offensive rebounds in the first half (15) than Boston had total defensive rebounds (11). Brooklyn scored 19 of its 59 first-half points off second-chance efforts. Even though Boston tightened up on the glass in the second half, the damage might have been done.

"We didn't do any adjustments in the second half, we just fought more," said Rivers. "We got into bodies, we helped less, we didn't allow guys to beat us off the dribble as much, and I thought we did a better job."

Maybe the biggest takeaway from this game: The Nets are a legitimate contender in the Atlantic Division, and the top of the division is getting awfully crowded. Boston already lost to Philadelphia (4-4) last Friday at TD Garden and the Knicks (6-0) are the best team in basketball (and the only remaining undefeated squad). Boston will wake up to find itself third in the division (and will be tied for that spot with the 76ers if they beat the Jazz on Friday).

An improved Atlantic should challenge Boston to be a better team, but it's also going to take its toll. Suddenly, those 16 games aren't as easy as they once were. Now, winning the division title is far from Boston's top priority, but earning a top seed could be a bit more daunting in a beefed-up division.