- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Well, Tuesday night in Cleveland just got a lot more interesting.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers essentially threatened his team after Sunday's 103-88 loss to the Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. After winning a season-high six straight while rebuilding its confidence, Boston has lost three in a row to dip to 20-20 overall, and Rivers said a potential shakeup awaits if his team does not start playing with more intensity and consistency.
"I think this team wants everything easy," Rivers said. "They want the easy way out. They want to win easy. And I told them the only way you're going to win easy is you're going to have to play hard. The harder you play, the easier the games become. We're taking the wrong approach. I've got to either find the right combination, the right guys, or we're going to get some guys out of here. It's the bottom line. Because this group right now, they are not playing right. It's in them to play right. But right now they haven't been -- either because I'm not getting to them, or they are not getting to each other. But at the end of the day, either we've got to do that, or we've got to make changes."
So here's Boston's conundrum: When the Celtics play to their potential, they are pretty damn good. But, as Rivers stressed in his postgame outburst, the Celtics really have only strung together three consecutive solid efforts this season while beating playoff-caliber opponents in the Pacers, Hawks and Knicks to start the six-game winning streak earlier this month. Boston endured maddening lulls in play against the Suns and Rockets before topping the gritty-yet-woeful Bobcats to close out that stretch last Monday.
The Celtics promptly regressed amidst the hoopla surrounding Father vs. Son against New Orleans on Wednesday, then improbably coughed up a winnable game while falling to Chicago in overtime on Friday. While Detroit has played better basketball lately than its record might indicate, the Celtics came out flat, digging themselves a double-digit hole 4½ minutes in on Sunday. Boston rallied from an 18-point second-quarter deficit to tie the game before intermission, only to let Detroit race away.
And that left Rivers fuming.
"[The start of game] was awful, we are playing awful," he said. "I'm clearly not doing my job with this team. And I'm serious, I'm not trying to take a bullet for the team. And I told them that. I said, ‘We've got to find something where, every night, all 12 guys play the same way.' We did it for three games in a stretch. I told them that games 4 and 5 in that [six-game] winning streak were garbage; we just won the game. I've got to figure that out. I told the guys that, I've got to figure it out. Because I don't think the guys are honest with each other. I just don't think we have committed to being a good basketball team."
The Celtics seemingly navigated their rockiest waters while closing out the 2012 calendar year. Boston got pummeled in losing three games by at least 18 points against the Clippers, Warriors and Kings as part of a stretch where it lost eight of 10 to slide three games under .500 at 14-17. Rivers and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge preached patience and seemed to be rewarded with inspired play that coincided with the return of Avery Bradley at the start of the month.
And now, essentially one month away from the Feb. 21 trade deadline, the Celtics are forced to once again consider if they have the right pieces to make another postseason run.
Rivers was quick to clarify on Sunday that he wasn't sure "if we need changes." But his rant essentially put it on the players: Start playing a better brand of basketball, or the decision-makers in Boston will have no other choice but to break up the band.
All of sudden a seemingly innocuous Tuesday night visit to Cleveland got a little more intriguing. Boston absolutely must put a better foot forward, particularly with a national TV rematch with the Knicks looming Thursday. That kicks off another pivotal three-game stretch against a trio of playoff-caliber foes with a trip to Atlanta on Friday before a visit from the Heat on Sunday at TD Garden.
No pressure, boys.
Clearly Rivers' preference is to simply get more inspired and consistent play from his team. Bradley's return ratcheted up the defense more than just a few notches. The Celtics got back to playing the sort of defense that had been their calling card during the Kevin Garnett era. Combine that with better bench play and Boston looked like a true contender again.
But Sunday's lackluster effort wasn't exactly the exception for this team. Boston has had a propensity to play down to the level of opponents and sometimes expects to beat those teams by simply showing up. Particularly in Detroit, where The Palace has been an absolute house of horrors in recent years, the Celtics absolutely should have known it wouldn't be that easy.
If Boston cannot turn things around, there's no shortage of underperformers at the moment. Brandon Bass, who inked a three-year, $19.4 million extension this offseaosn, hasn't been anywhere near as effective as he was last season -- at either end of the floor. Bass picked up two fouls in the first three minutes on Sunday and played a mere 10:20 overall. Missing all three shots he took while finishing with 0 points and 2 rebounds, he was a minus-14 in plus/minus. Boston used its one big offseason chip -- the mid-level exception -- to ink Jason Terry to a three-year, $15.7 million deal this summer and he's struggled to find his shot and settle in as leader of the second unit.
You can't help but wonder how far Rivers and Ainge would be willing to go to overhaul this team if it can't get itself right. With players struggling, Boston doesn't exactly have a lot of desirable assets to bring back superstar-caliber talent, unless the Celtics are willing to move core players.
The guess here is that the team would have to bottom out before that is considered, but Rivers' message shouldn't fall on deaf ears. The decision about where this team goes from here is completely on the players at this point, and Rivers will let their play determine what this team does moving forward.
And it starts Tuesday in Cleveland, turning a ho-hum midweek matchup against a non-playoff team into must-watch basketball and a bit of a must-win game for Boston.
Celtics players must decide if they want the easy way or the hard way. Rivers is hoping that, for a change, they chose the latter.
7dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann