- Chris Forsberg, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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Most athletes are creatures of habit and stick to pregame routines. For Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers and forward Rasheed Wallace, those routines typically intersect when Wallace returns to the locker room following his on-court warm-up at the same time Rivers wraps up his pregame briefing with the media.
Wallace even uses the same cheap-laugh joke, typically chastising Rivers for clogging up the hallway outside the locker room and causing a fire hazard. Wallace loves to tell Rivers he's going to call the fire marshal.
When Wallace didn't stroll by before Monday night's game with the Atlanta Hawks, it was a clue that something was amiss. Ironically, Rivers had just told the media how proud he's been of his team and coaching staff for overcoming all the adversity they have faced -- particularly the troubles that often have cropped up minutes before tipoff.
A short time after Rivers wrapped up his Q&A session, Wallace returned to the locker room and told his coach that he couldn't play against the Hawks, becoming the latest member of Gang Green, an ailing group of Celtics that this month has included Kevin Garnett (hyperextended right knee), Rajon Rondo (sore left hamstring), Paul Pierce (right knee infection), Tony Allen (illness), Glen Davis (sprained right ankle, thumb surgery), Kendrick Perkins (food poisoning) and Eddie House (illness). Additionally, Marquis Daniels remains sidelined after undergoing thumb surgery last month.
"I'm just happy with the way we're competing," Rivers said before finding out about Wallace, who is expected to miss as much as a week with an injury to his forefoot, which prevents him from properly pushing off while jumping.
"We've had a lot of things thrown at us here in a short stretch -- injuries, illnesses -- and the fact that they're coming five minutes before gametime. Things like that are far more difficult for our staff and players."
While Rivers has stressed to his team that injuries are not to be used as a crutch, it's clear the Celtics take a great deal of pride in remaining competitive without all of their horses.
Asked following Monday's loss if it bothered him that the Celtics had lost three games to the Hawks this season despite leading each game at halftime, Pierce voiced great confidence in his team.
"It's a concern," said Pierce, noting that Boston certainly doesn't want to give another team confidence, particularly one the Celtics might see again in the playoffs.
"But we still feel like we're a better team, [Atlanta] just got the best of us. The year we won the championship [in 2007-08], we lost four times to Washington. It definitely should bother us, but we're a better team, and it will show."
The Celtics are 26-10 nearing the midway point of the season. They're still on pace for around 60 wins. Sure, it's not the 72 victories that some had them pegged for after a blazing 20-4 start, but they're on track to be one of the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference (currently second behind the Cavaliers).
The real question is: Will the Celtics ever be free of the injury/illness bug? Is this a rash of bad luck that will fade before the postseason? Or, as many pundits openly wondered in the preseason, are the Celtics simply too old and fragile?
It's a concern that Wallace and the entire Big Three are all nicked up less than three months into the season. To be fair, Ray Allen's ailments are rather minor. His nose got grazed by a basketball Friday in Atlanta and the injury scabbed over, forcing him to wear a bandage on his nose in recent games.
That's certainly better than the knee ailments that have limited Pierce and Garnett, but it's another sign of just how ravaged this team is. No one's safe.
Beyond injury, there's reason to be legitimately concerned about whether the Celtics can compete with top competition. Their trio of losses against the Hawks highlights the fact that they have played one of the softer schedules in the NBA, sitting at 28th in strength of schedule Tuesday with their opponents' winning percentage at .473. The Celtics can take solace in the fact that other contenders, such as the Cavaliers, Spurs and Magic, have faced only marginally tougher foes to this point.
Of the Celtics' 10 losses, half have come against Atlanta and Phoenix. Take away a defeat against Orlando, and the others were letdowns against lackluster competition in Indiana (12-25), Philadelphia (12-25), the Clippers (17-18) and Golden State (11-25). The optimist sees a lack a motivation against lesser opponents. The pessimist sees a streaky team with problems at both ends of the competition spectrum.
The remainder of January will likely tell us a bit more about this team. The Celtics hope to be back near full strength in time for games in Orlando and Atlanta, and a home matchup with the Lakers near the end of the month.
Pierce did his best Monday to alleviate any fears about the team's recent struggles (3-5 in their last eight games). But nothing would make Celtics fans feel better than getting the team back together in one piece.
Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
The Celtics have to shake the injury bug soon, don't they?