Celtics search for silver lining in losses
Road trip didn't go as planned, but team has longer-term goal
Before the Celtics departed for a four-game road trip to close out the 2009 calendar year, captain Paul Pierce expressed excitement at the fact that Boston was getting ready to welcome back Glen Davis from a fractured right hand, which meant the team was one step closer to being completely healthy for the first time all season.
Just a couple of days later, Pierce underwent arthroscopic surgery for a knee infection, and Davis returned for three games but then suffered a mild ankle sprain that has him back on the shelf temporarily. The same night Davis went down, Kevin Garnett got kicked in his surgically repaired right knee and, on Wednesday, he missed his second game in little more than a week because of a variety of ailments (bump on the head, bruised thigh, hyperextended knee).
The Celtics (23-8) limp back to Boston losers of more than just three straight; they've also lost control of the best record in the Eastern Conference (Cleveland is conference leader with a 26-8 mark). Previously afforded the luxury of sending players such as rookie guard Lester Hudson and second-year forward Bill Walker to the Maine Red Claws of the NBA Development League, the Celtics have needed those bodies just to fill active roster spots on game day.
Beaten and bruised, the Celtics looked as if they were waving a white flag Wednesday in Phoenix. The Celtics were playing their third game in four nights and without two-thirds of the Big Three -- against a surging opponent eager to turn the game into a track meet.
Despite losing back-to-back games earlier in the week, the Celtics looked content to endure their lumps and get to the plane.
Even Eddie House remarked after the game that the Celtics were "lollygagging" and "going through the motions." Take away House's 5-of-7 shooting from 3-point land and the Celtics were 1-of-14 from beyond the arc. The Celtics shot just 42.2 percent (35-of-83), suggesting their legs were toast at the end of the three-game West Coast swing.
The Celtics missed eight free throws (with Kendrick Perkins the chief offender, making just 1 of 5) and generated just 18 assists (they were averaging more than 24 per game).
Coach Doc Rivers ultimately pulled Rajon Rondo, who had gutted out 32 minutes despite a sore left hamstring that made him questionable to even play that night. The Celtics had enough wounds from this trip -- including a severely bruised ego -- and didn't need to risk enduring more.
Rivers noted that, considering how short-handed his team was, it wasn't surprising that it lost Wednesday night against a Suns team that had toppled the Western Conference-leading Lakers two days earlier.
But Rivers added that Wednesday's loss made the previous two defeats sting just a little bit more. It's one thing to be short-handed and accept defeat by a top-tier opponent. But when you're coming off back-to-back disappointing losses -- games the Celtics know they should have won -- it left Boston in need of a victory to stop the bleeding.
It wasn't going to come in Phoenix.
The good news for the Celtics is that they play just one game -- Saturday against the Raptors -- in the next six days. Boston can rest ailing bodies before heading out on a three-game road trip with visits to Miami, Atlanta and Toronto next week.
The Celtics can identify the bad from the past three games and swear off those mistakes as part of their New Year's resolutions. As the ball drops, they can come to terms with the fact that they dropped the ball out west.
Of course, the simplest solution to Boston's troubles might come with time. Garnett, Rondo, and Davis all appear to have minor injuries, and Pierce's projected two-week recovery would put him on pace to return right around the Jan. 6 visit to Miami, although it's our guess it'll be a longer absence than that.
The Celtics made a New Year's-type resolution back in October to always keep their longest-term goal in mind -- and that was to be healthy and playing their best ball in May. It appears they're following that plan.
When the team identified that guard Marquis Daniels was hurting more than he had been letting on earlier this month, it sent him right to the surgeon to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb. When Pierce's knee acted up two days before a Christmas showdown against the Magic, Boston didn't hesitate to send him under the knife to treat an infection. And seeing an opportunity to give Garnett some "strategic rest" -- the new buzzword of choice for these Celtics -- Boston shut him down Wednesday (and potentially beyond) and will endure the difficulties associated with losing his presence on the court.
The Celtics understand the value of home-court advantage and recognize the value in each and every win. But trotting out injured players hoping to salvage a victory on the final game of a road trip doesn't help a team in the long run.
Rivers has said often that his team needs to find positives in both wins and losses. So here's the silver lining in Wednesday's loss: No one else got injured.
Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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