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PER Diem: March 12, 2009

3/12/2009 - NBA Boston Celtics

Last season, the Boston Celtics took maximum advantage of their ability to sign veteran players who had been cut loose by other teams, inking Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown just before the March 1 cutoff date to give their playoff run a huge boost. Brown proved vital at several junctures, most notably in the Celtics' Game 7 win over Cleveland, while Cassell's ability to handle the ball saved Eddie House from the ravages of Lindsey Hunter's ball pressure in the Detroit series.

Fast-forward a year and the Celtics again find themselves counting on two late-season waiver pickups -- Stephon Marbury and Mikki Moore. Only this time the C's need them a lot earlier, because they're in a tooth-and-nail fight for playoff home-court advantage and they're rapidly losing ground.

And so far, the returns on Starbury and Moore haven't been nearly as positive as they were on last season's pickups.

In Wednesday night's 111-102 loss to Miami, Marbury started and played 24 minutes without scoring -- a jarring result for a player whose forte as a point guard has been his ability to score, rather than pass. In 101 minutes as a Celtic, Marbury has only 14 points; more shockingly, he has earned just one free throw attempt.

As a floor general, he hasn't lit the world on fire either, with 16 assists and 12 turnovers. While there have been occasional flashes of the old Starbury -- most notably a speedy crossover followed by a dish to Moore for a dunk in the Cleveland game -- for the most part he seems miles from being in basketball shape.

Moore hasn't been much better. The Celtics are trying to sell him as essentially the equal of Joe Smith, saying they wanted one or the other and took Moore because he was available first. But I suspect they regret not waiting on Smith. While Moore does similar things (make jumpers, take charges, talk on D), he has slipped badly the past two seasons and arrived from Sacramento with an 8.18 PER.

Though he has had sporadic moments of quality, including a 3-of-3 effort to aid the win over Cleveland, so far Moore's Boston tenure has been defined mostly by a massive propensity for fouling -- he has committed nearly one foul every four minutes as a Celtic.

Perhaps it's unfair to expect more out of the duo just yet -- they're both learning a new system, and Marbury hadn't played since the preseason. Unfortunately, the Celtics need these two players right now because of their numerous injuries. With Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Tony Allen, Brian Scalabrine and Glen Davis all hurt, Boston rode Moore and Marbury for a combined 42 minutes on Wednesday ... during which time they went scoreless. Their final line: 0-for-9 with four rebounds, six assists, three turnovers and five fouls.

So desperate were the Celtics that they even gave greenhorns Bill Walker and Gabe Pruitt some run, and might lean on them more heavily if their veteran pickups don't start producing.

Meanwhile, it seems the damage has already been done. Boston has lost contact with Cleveland and L.A. in the race for the top overall seed, trailing each team by three games in the loss column with just 17 left to play. Though they still own the tiebreaker with Cleveland, for all intents and purposes it's over -- Thursday's Playoff Odds give Boston only an 18.1 percent chance of getting the top seed, and the Playoff Odds don't know that Garnett won't be back for at least another week.

In fact, the Celtics need to worry more about the team below them than the two teams above them. Orlando is only a game back in the loss column, and though the Celtics are likely to own the tiebreaker over the Magic due to a superior conference record, that becomes a factor only if they stop losing ground.

Best records since Dec. 25

And losing ground they are. If you want a sobering thought for Celtics' fans, just look at the chart. Since its epic 27-2 start, Boston has cooled off to a much more pedestrian 22-14 mark. Believe it or not, 10 other teams have better marks than the Celtics since Christmas Day, including all eight likely Western Conference playoff teams.

Seen in that light, perhaps Marbury and Moore are mere symptoms of the larger problem -- a deficient bench that has plagued Boston ever since the grind of the schedule began taking a toll on its regular rotation. Everyone has pointed to the loss of James Posey off the Celtics' bench, and certainly that's been important, but it's been more glaring because none of the potential replacements has worked out and the Celtics have had a far greater run of injuries than a season ago.

Thus, the real issue isn't that Marbury and Moore have played badly the past few games. It's that Boston was counting on them so heavily in the first place. It's one thing to bring in other teams' castoffs as extra role players, and quite another to need them to produce in order to win. Thanks to its recent rash of injuries and season-long bench deficiencies, Boston finds itself in the latter position rather than the former. And as a result, the Celtics may find themselves trying to defend their title without having home-court advantage beyond the first round.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.