- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 13, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Once a good possibility, an NBA finals rematch sure seems in jeopardy now.

In the final days of the regular season, the Los Angeles Lakers have been beaten often. The Boston Celtics have been beaten badly.

Yes, both have been through this before. The Lakers limped into the postseason last year, the Celtics hardly looked like a contender for the final two-thirds of the season, yet they ended up meeting for the title for the 12th time.

Things feel different now.

The Lakers might very well just be going through the motions, but the Celtics might be going through a crisis.

“They’ve lost some bad games,” Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley said in a phone interview. “Everything starts over 0-0 (in the playoffs), but they’ve been psychologically wounded since they traded Kendrick Perkins.”

Boston fell into third place in the Eastern Conference when it was pounded 100-77 at Miami on Sunday, then basically conceded the race for the No. 2 seed when it rested all four of its All-Stars in a 95-94 overtime loss at Washington on Monday.

That locked the Celtics into a first-round matchup with the New York Knicks, who have surged into the No. 6 seed. TNT’s Steve Kerr once saw that as simply the first stop in Boston’s return to the finals, but now considers it the most interesting first-round pairing in either conference.

Barkley wrote off Boston last year as it stumbled to a 27-27 finish and refuses to do so again because of his belief in Doc Rivers’ coaching. Yet Kerr, seeing Perkins gone and unsure if Shaquille O'Neal can be counted on, said he’s “not sure they can flip the switch this year.”

“It seems to me that ever since the Perkins trade, they’ve lost their soul,” Kerr said. “They’ve lost their identity and I think that team was really affected emotionally by that trade. And even though they played well early in the season without him when he was injured, I think knowing that Perkins would be back along with having Shaq playing pretty well at the time, I think that was a comforting time for them.

“Now that he’s gone, especially with the way that they’ve built that team the last couple of years and sustained their confidence through Doc’s comments that we’re undefeated when we’re fully healthy, the celebrated ubuntu philosophy, it’s like they sort of threw that out the window and I don’t see the belief in their eyes right now.”

In ubuntu, Kerr was referring to the team’s motto, an African concept that translates roughly to “I am because we are.”

The regular season ends Wednesday and the playoffs don’t start until Saturday, so there’s time for the Celtics to refocus. Los Angeles has its own questions to answer. The Lakers snapped a five-game losing streak, their longest in four years, with a victory over San Antonio on Tuesday night, but center Andrew Bynum hyperextended his right knee in the game.

Los Angeles’ superb low-post defender will have an MRI on Wednesday while the Lakers wrap up the regular season at Sacramento.

“There’s always concern,” said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who acknowledged Bynum could be out for at least a few games. “We’ve seen him go down a couple of times that have been debilitating, so there’s a concern. It was kind of a freaky play, but they usually are, and that’s what basketball is.”

The Lakers lost six of their final 10 last year. Barkley said their size makes it tough for anybody to beat them four times, and Kerr thinks they just lost some enthusiasm after a late charge to catch the Spurs for the No. 1 seed fell short.

“I think they have plenty of confidence and they should. I mean they’re back-to-back champs,” Kerr said. “They’ve got so much veteran experience that I think they’ll regain their focus and find their way back in a first-round series and be the team to beat.”

Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni has been writing off the Celtics‘ struggles, mindful of what they did last year. But perhaps this Boston group isn’t like last year’s team, but rather one D’Antoni used to coach.

As Phoenix president, Kerr made a team-altering trade in 2008 before the deadline when he sent Shawn Marion, a mainstay of the Suns’ small-ball schemes, to Miami for O'Neal. He sees similarities in the struggles of those Suns and these Celtics to adjust to such a major swap so late in the season, with a notable exception.

“I guess the difference is we made the trade because we felt like we weren’t good enough as we were to win the whole thing with Marion, whereas Boston to me was the best team in the league for most of the season,” Kerr said.

Now the East favorite is unknown. TNT will exclusively televise the East finals among the approximately 40 games it will show during the playoffs. While Barkley sees top-seeded Chicago getting there, he can envision Miami or Boston _ also hammered by the Bulls last week _ as the opponent.

“I think Boston’s going to be fine,” he said. “I think when they play Miami in the second round, that’s going to be a knockdown, drag-out series.”

It was easier to like the Celtics in those situations with their snarling former center. While the Heat played with no fear of Boston on Sunday, Barkley noticed how much tougher Oklahoma City looked later that night with Perkins patrolling the middle when it went into Los Angeles and routed the Lakers.

Perhaps that was just part of a late-season malaise for the Lakers. And maybe it’s why they won’t have to worry about the Celtics once they snap out of it.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in the East that scares the daylights out of Boston. But with that said, they’re going to have to recapture the old glory, the old spirit somehow in the next couple of weeks and I haven’t seen anything to indicate that that’s going to happen,” Kerr said. “I was convinced that Boston was the best most of the season, but that’s kind of thrown out the window now for me.”