Waiting for it to click
Struggling Celtics confident improvement will come with better execution
WALTHAM, Mass. -- Boasting an underachieving 4-4 record over their last eight games and coming off a seemingly uninspired effort that required an overtime buzzer-beater to top the lowly Knicks on Sunday in New York, you might have expected to find the Boston Celtics being put through a rigorous practice Monday.
The type of workout where the players hardly touch a basketball and instead run a seemingly endless series of suicides. You picture players hunched over at each end of the court, trying desperately to catch their breath and keep their lunches, while coach Doc Rivers stands in the middle of the court, whistle in hand, imploring them to move faster. The entire sequence designed at making the team so miserable, they never underperform on the court again.[+] EnlargeElsa/Getty ImagesDoc Rivers knows the Celtics will have to persevere through stretches in which they aren't playing their best basketball.
In reality, the exact opposite occurred. Rivers hesitated to even term Monday's session a "practice" because he essentially gave the starters the afternoon off, and spent much of the hourlong workout simply walking through sets with the second unit.
For all the panic that exists outside of the Sports Authority Training Center at HealthPoint, there was hardly any inside of it. Players understand they need to get better and are genuinely frustrated by their inconsistencies, but laughter seemed like the best medicine Monday.
Maybe it'd be easier if the Celtics could pinpoint one area for their troubles. Sure, the team recognizes it's struggling to shoot the ball consistently from all over the court, and there's been an inability to play with sustained intensity for 48 minutes. But Rivers contends these are troubles that every team endures along an 82-game season, and the Celtics seem content with the notion that time will wash these problems away.
Which is why the Celtics throw around buzzwords like "execution." In basketball, execution is seemingly a gigantic umbrella that covers all the troubles a team might encounter within a season.
Troubles making stops on the defensive end? Blame execution. Sloppiness trying to run offensive sets? You guessed it: Lack of execution.
"Execution-wise, we're getting there," Rivers said Monday. "Early in the year, the point I've been making is, it ain't like we're panicked about it. [We haven't been] doing it and we're starting to do it. [Sunday] we did it great, we just couldn't make shots. Days like [Monday] and [Tuesday] will help."
Webster's defines execution as "the act or mode or result of performance." The Celtics' performance has been underwhelming, so surely there's a failure to execute.
The Celtics talk so much about execution, you'd never know Massachusetts abolished the death penalty in 1984.
"I think execution is going to be one of the keys we strive for each and every game," said Kevin Garnett. "Doc continues to enforce that and we, as players, have to continue to try to make that a priority, get better at that. It starts with the mindset. There's a lot of new stuff he's trying out on us, stuff that we can handle, but, again, executing it is a whole other thing. So we're working on it."
In the meantime, the Celtics view individual issues -- like Rasheed Wallace's 3-point struggles (27 percent from beyond the arc) and Rajon Rondo's free throw troubles (33 percent) -- as areas these players will work through sooner than later. Rivers implored all of his players to keep shooting, particularly when they have open looks, and Rondo makes free throws with Ray Allen-like consistency in practice, so that has to eventually translate to games.
As much as the Celtics struggled at times against the Knicks, Boston is hopeful to build off the momentum of Garnett's game-winning jumper. Players seem to think one complete effort could end this funk.
"I feel like it could take one game to get back on track," said center Kendrick Perkins. "You see us playing in spurts, we look like the old Celtics. Sometimes we go away from it, but it feels like it's getting better."
The Celtics jumped out to a 6-0 start with a bit of smoke and mirrors. Rivers was asked if it was frustrating to watch a veteran team endure the sort of inconsistencies that plague most young squads, and he cautioned against worrying too much.
Heck, he noted this won't be the only time the Celtics endure a lackluster stretch like this. Even championship teams weather peaks and valleys.
"Someone asked me before the season, 'When will it happen?'" said Rivers. "I have no idea. You never know. You'd love for it to be perfect out of the box, but that's not going to happen. We've done it in stretches, especially the last week or so, and right before that it looked like we were starting to get it, then we decided to make a U-turn.
"It won't be the last time. We're going to get it and we're going to get it quickly. But it'll go away, then we'll have to get it back. The next time it's better, and it's there for a longer stretch. It's no different than two years ago."
And the Celtics are OK with struggling with their execution during the regular season so long as the 2009-10 season ends like two years ago.
Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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