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Early concerns pile up for Celtics

BOSTON -- It's too early to say the Celtics are in a crisis. But they are at a crossroads.

Rajon Rondo, in his first year as unquestioned leader, has abandoned the team for two games by way of suspension. Paul Pierce, at 35, is shooting 42.1 percent from the field, a nine-year low. The 36-year-old Kevin Garnett's rebounding amounts to his worst since 2009-10, when he was diminished by surgery on his knee the previous spring.

With sarcastic thanks to Rondo's absence, the Celtics were approaching a weekend back-to-back (against Portland and at Milwaukee) without any star operating at a high level or any role player providing go-to consistency. The Celtics rank an appalling 26th in field-goal defense and they remain as weak as ever on the glass.

"We're a soft team right now,'' coach Doc Rivers said the other night. "We have no toughness.''

The Celtics have dealt with issues every year since their 2008 breakthrough in the NBA Finals, and by the end of each season they've responded proudly. But those issues tended to revolve around their health. As long as they had their health, they knew -- stubbornly and arrogantly -- what they could achieve. They knew who they were.

They don't quite know who they are anymore.

This is a different situation this year, and it arrives amid inflated expectations in Boston. Because the Celtics had deepened their bench, it was assumed that they could and should have enough weapons to challenge Miami after their depleted rotation had taken a 3-2 lead over the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals last season. But last year's team was peaking, while this year's Celtics are launching in a new direction.

It starts with Rondo. To his credit, he has been trying to behave like a team leader in a public way, which is asking a lot of a player who has behaved like an introvert throughout his NBA career. The roster has changed around him, there are new players to indoctrinate to the Celtics' system, and he is having to make choices and decisions for which he was never responsible until now. It's like elevating an assistant to become the head coach: Everything changes when everyone else is waiting for you to make the decisions that affect them.

Based on the wealth of postseason victories he has squeezed out of the tired and injured Celtics over the years, I've taken to rating Rondo as the best point guard in the NBA. Most people in the league would rank Chris Paul ahead of Rondo, and to make their point they could cite Rondo's ejection Wednesday and the predictable suspension that came with it. They would point out that Paul doesn't put himself in those kinds of positions. He's an undersized star like Rondo and just as fiery, but if he saw Blake Griffin's being knocked out of bounds by Kris Humphries, Paul would not respond by shoving Humphries to ignite a melee that spilled into the stands. Paul would find another way to retaliate. He would try to use the incident to incite his team to come back and win the game. He would try to make Humphries pay in a meaningful way.

The difference between Paul and Rondo is that Paul has been leading his teams for years and he understands his priorities innately. Rondo, as he showed the other night, is still learning.

In the meantime, the Celtics don't know who they are anymore. They used to be a threat to all comers because they could space the floor with four great players. Now they're down to three and, as Rivers pointed out recently, Pierce isn't able to separate from defenders as he did in the past.

Jason Terry, a proven winner and big-moment producer, is finding his way. Avery Bradley remains sidelined by surgery on both shoulders. Jeff Green has struggled. Courtney Lee is inconsistent. Jared Sullinger is a rookie. Brandon Bass's rebounding is up and down.

Who are the Celtics? They entered this season with two agendas. One was to try to win another championship. The other was to blend in younger players to lay ground for a new era. And so this was going to be Rivers' most difficult assignment yet in the Garnett era, because he is trying to transform virtually every player on his roster -- whether it's Rondo as a leader, Pierce as an older star, or complementary players who have never played for a franchise modeled around Garnett -- and yet keep the team in championship contention.

"Kevin, Paul and Rondo and a couple other guys -- it's almost like they understand the jersey they're wearing and the pride,'' Rivers said after the loss to the Nets dropped the Celtics to 8-7. "And everyone else -- and not everyone -- it's almost like they think because they put the jersey on that they are something. You've got to earn it here.''

It was as if Rivers was relieved to see Rondo's losing his composure and his teammates' failing to pick up for him in his absence. He was trying to turn this incident into a teachable moment. Because, as the Celtics are finding out, there is a lot of teaching yet to be done.