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'Sickening' effort by C's in playoff quest

BOSTON -- Earlier this week, Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder posted a picture to Instagram with him tugging on his Celtics jersey split-screened with a photo of Kevin Garnett doing the same. He captioned it, "The presence of pride! Playing for something bigger than yourself," with a hashtag referencing Boston's playoff push.

After Wednesday's head-shaking 93-86 loss to the incredibly shorthanded Miami Heat, Crowder unknowingly stood in almost the identical spot inside the Celtics locker room where Garnett held so many of his postgame confabs with reporters. His coat drawn tight near his face and staring down at the ground like Garnett used to, the soft-spoken Crowder struggled to put Boston's effort -- or lack thereof -- into words.

"Sickening. Sickening, man," Crowder said. "That loss hurts. I don't know what to say about it. We didn't show up.

He added: "Playing at home, playing for something in front of our home crowd, we don't show up for three quarters. I don't understand it."

Just three days earlier, the Celtics let a winnable game slip away against the lottery-bound Detroit Pistons. It was frustrating enough that veteran Gerald Wallace elected to address his young teammates after the game and demand a greater sense of urgency.

Boston displayed that the next night in Brooklyn, grinding through some early struggles to upend the Nets on a second night of a back-to-back. The Celtics took Tuesday to recover -- all while Miami endured a stomach punch in Milwaukee -- and arrived at TD Garden on Wednesday night to find out the Heat would be playing without Dwyane Wade, Hassan Whiteside, and Chris Andersen.

An easy win, right?

Boston must have mentally downshifted, because the Celtics didn't even bother showing up for the first three quarters of an ugly, disjointed game full of whistles and replays. Crowder himself isn't absolved from the lusterless effort, as evidenced by a late first-quarter sequence in which his haphazard inbounds pass trying to push the ball after a Miami fastbreak led to another immediate bucket when the pass was stolen. That helped the Heat build a 19-point second-quarter lead.

It seemed likely that Boston could collect itself and come out inspired to chip away at its deficit. But the Celtics starters only looked more disinterested. There was a sequence early in the third quarter in which Udonis Haslem missed a mid-range jumper off the back iron and the ball popped up with only one red shirt (Goran Dragic) surrounded by five white jerseys. You can probably guess how that sequence ended: Dragic somehow secured the ball in traffic and bounced off a couple Boston players like a pinball. After Miami collected yet another offensive carom on the same possession, Dragic attacked the basket for a finger roll and the Heat soon led by 22.

"For the first two and a half quarters, I didn't think we played, and that's the frustrating part," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "I told the guys in [the locker room], that's got to be on the coach if that team's not good on that night, first and foremost."

Yes, Stevens politely tried to fall on the sword, but it's hard to imagine what he could have done to spur his team on this night. By the middle of the third quarter, he had resigned himself to throw darts in search of a spark. He eventually found a mix-and-match lineup of Crowder, Phil Pressey, Marcus Smart, Luigi Datome, and Jonas Jerebko that helped Boston rally within five before the Heat closed out the victory.

So what happened at the start of the game?

"To be honest, I don't know," Smart said. "That's something we have to fix as a team, as a group. If we don't fix that and figure that out quick, we're going to have some problems."

Too late. The Celtics essentially ceded any hope of the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference as Miami opened a two-game lead and owns the head-to-head tie-breaker against Boston after winning three of the four season meetings between the two teams.

Boston was lucky to simply hold its position as the eighth seed. Indiana edged Washington to pull even with the Celtics (Boston currently owns the head-to-head tie-breaker), while Brooklyn topped Charlotte, and both teams sit a half-game back of Boston and Indy.

Unless Milwaukee and Miami really stumble, it's likely a four-team chase for the final playoff spot in the East. The Celtics visit Charlotte on Monday, then host the Pacers on Wednesday. If they want any chance at the postseason, the Celtics have to find a sense of urgency before those games arrive.

Wednesday's effort was simply unacceptable.

"You can't come out lackadaisical," Crowder said. "We can't come out -- because they're missing guys -- come out without a sense of urgency. We didn't have that. They had a sense of urgency and they blew a lead last night and they were trying to come in here and fight for one tonight."

The Celtics? They had no interest in rolling up their sleeves. Boston's top lineups were content to get pushed around, then crossed their fingers while hoping an energy-fueled group could will them back in the final frame.

It didn't happen. And the team showered in disappointment.

After meeting with reporters, Crowder took to Twitter to write (in his all-caps preference), "Apologize for the lack of effort from myself and the guys tonight. Will learn and get better man!!"

The Celtics didn't learn after Sunday's game. Will they learn from Wednesday?

"We just have to know what's at stake, as a unit," Crowder said. "Each game right now, we're playing for something. If that doesn't motivate you to come out and be prepared and be ready to go, I don't know what will."