Celtics' slide wasn't part of the plan

We're not going to get to the 50-32 of a year ago, but does it look as if this year's Celtics are starting to look a lot like last year's Celtics? That is not a good thing. At least, it isn't now.

The Celtics' winning percentage has dropped every month since the turn of the year, replicating last season's underwhelming 27-27 finish. Their loss to Indiana on Monday was their third in four games and kept them two games astern of Chicago -- and tied with Miami -- in the Eastern Conference. Not all that long ago, they held decent leads over both teams.

The Celtics are 8-7 in March with Thursday night's game against equally reeling San Antonio to close out the month. Boston is a mere 10-8 since it sent Kendrick Perkins packing and imploded its bench. The Celtics are 15-11 since blowing out the Lakers in the fourth quarter at the Staples Center on Jan. 30.

Something is amiss, and, unlike last season, it's not readily apparent what. The Celtics' March/April game plan last year was transparent. They were going for health over victories, standings and seedings be damned. Kevin Garnett was still dragging and averaged a shade more than 29 minutes a game in his last 25 games. He missed two of the last three.

Paul Pierce was ailing (though few knew it). His minutes, and those of Ray Allen, dropped by more than 10 percent in the final two months. There were grisly home losses to Memphis (by 20), San Antonio (by 21), Washington (by 10) and a season finale to Milwaukee by 10 (in a game that all of the Big Three missed).

That was a choice the team made. It appeared to be a Faustian deal at the onset, but the team got its swagger and health back (for the most part) and made it all the way to Game 7 of the NBA Finals. No one -- and if people say they did, they're lying -- predicted such a run when the playoffs opened.

This year, there is no obvious medical urgency among the regulars unless we count utter exhaustion. Rajon Rondo is nicked, maybe worse, but he was terrific in Indiana. Garnett looks as though he needs a week in Cancun; did you see some of his Ryan Leaf-ish passes against the Pacers?

It probably wouldn't hurt Pierce and Allen to sit, either, although Allen is doing more watching and less shooting these days, so maybe he's got nothing worse than eyestrain. Seriously, how can the Celtics allow one of the great shooters ever to take 10 or fewer shots a game? That's Allen's total in each of the past four games, three of them losses.

The real health issues lie with the two supposed members of the cavalry, Jermaine and Shaquille O'Neal. It's like what the doctor tells you after you've undergone tests in the hospital: hope for the best, prepare for the worst. For all the anticipation surrounding Shaq, he is 39. He is huge. And he is coming off an Achilles injury. How much can the Celtics reasonably expect to get out of him?
Jermaine might play Thursday night against the Spurs, which would be his first appearance since Jan. 10. He has never played a minute with Perkins. When he last played, Semih Erden was a backup.

Both O'Neals will need time not only to regain their basketball games but also to get accustomed to new teammates. That might not be as difficult for Shaq, who is likely to be back as a starter, where he knows the other four. Jermaine will be playing alongside guys such as Jeff Green and Delonte West. He has little experience with either.

And what's becoming clearer by the game is that the bench is having major adjustment issues, as well. We might someday look back on Feb. 6 as the date everything started to change. That's the day Marquis Daniels went down with his bruised spinal cord, never to play again this season. And that left the Celtics with a big need on the bench and 18 days to fill it via trade. Had Daniels still been healthy, we might never have seen the Feb. 24 bloodletting.

The reconfigured bench looks a lot better than it has turned out to be. It hasn't helped that Troy Murphy has been an absolute cipher. Did he really average 14.6 points and 10.2 rebounds a game last season? Where is that guy? Green has had his moments (Indiana, at home), but at times he looks hesitant and uncertain.

Nenad Krstic, who should slip to No. 3 if the O'Neals are at all productive, needs a cerebral reboot. Really. The guy has talent, but he is outthinking himself on the court instead of just reacting and playing. Doc Rivers said it best: "It's all between his ears." And, Doc, by the way, looks at times as if he wished he had taken the year off, as he considered, rather than deal with what's been going on lately.

There is still time left, but not a lot. And, as Pierce pointed out after the Indiana game, the problems facing the Celtics are problems that shouldn't be cropping up at this time of the season. By now, roles are supposed to be set. Rotations are supposed to be set. The words "soft" and "selfish" should not be in the coach's lexicon, especially with this group. But they are.

The Celtics are looking more and more like a No. 3 seed now, which means all that talk about getting the best record and having home-court advantage is just fodder for the circular file. They even have two more losses than the Lakers. At the All-Star break, they had five fewer. They could well get Philly in the first round, and that will be no bargain. The Sixers have played them tough all year (which one never would have envisioned having seen them in the exhibition season in New Hampshire).

So what's it going to be, guys? Have the Celtics been the consummate tease all season? If so, they've fooled a lot of us. Is it really, as the insufferable ad campaign continually reminds us, all about 18? Or have individual agendas and chemistry issues divided the once-close group?

We're going to know soon enough. I still think they can do it, but I admit it's getting harder by the game to make the case. With the lockout looming, this is likely to be the last run for this gang (certainly, it appears, it will be for Rivers).
How do they envision the end game? Not too long ago, that was easy to answer: confetti, championship hats, cigars and champagne all around, and another banner. The picture is far murkier now. And even knowing what happened last year, how much more confident does that make us -- or, more important, them?

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.