Celtics' effort on defense lacking
BOSTON -- Doc Rivers, the Boston Celtics' coach, dubbed Monday's loss to the Houston Rockets the worst defensive performance by his team in the Big Three era.
That's no small declaration, especially considering there's been some defenseless doozies over this season's previous 36 games alone, including giving up 38 second-quarter points in a 102-101 loss to the Toronto Raptors in late November, or letting the Detroit Pistons shoot 55.7 percent from the field in a 104-92 loss last month.
But Rivers couldn't remember a game like this, a game in which his team failed to generate a single stop for nearly 10 minutes. And it happened in the fourth quarter, a transgression so disturbing that one has to believe Kevin Garnett was tied down while watching the game because the locker room was still in one piece when reporters were allowed in later.
Rivers didn't want to hear any excuses following Boston's 108-102 defeat to the Rockets, its fifth loss in 10 games. Nothing, not even the continued absence of Garnett, could explain a performance in which Houston shot 66.7 percent in the fourth quarter, hitting 10 of 15 shots. The Rockets tipped in two of those five misses while fending off a furious Boston rally.
A Houston team hobbled by injuries and playing without chief offensive threat Kevin Martin on its sixth game in nine nights still managed to shoot 52.7 percent (39-of-74), including 50 percent beyond the 3-point line (10-of-20).
By the fourth quarter, Kyle Lowry was tossing up 15-foot, off-balance rainbow runners that splashed through the net and should have required Michael Jordan-like shrugs. Not on this night. It was just par for the course for the Rockets, and Rivers blasted his starters for allowing it to happen.
"It's our fault," Rivers said. "Every shot they made that looked wild -- it's funny, at halftime, I told our guys, I said, 'We're giving them confidence. An offensive team, you're giving them confidence. You go into the fourth quarter and you've given them confidence, they're going to make shots.'
"We said it at halftime: 'They're going to make shots. That's what they do. Especially now when they see themselves with a chance to win.' And they made some crazy shots. But it was due to our inability to play defense for three quarters. You give a good offensive player confidence, he'll make crazy shots on you. We see it all the time on our end."
That sound you just heard was the other shoe dropping.
Despite their defensive lapses, the Celtics entered the fourth quarter with a manageable six-point deficit. It seemed like the setup for a prototypical fourth-quarter lockdown in which Boston surges ahead on the strength of defense stops, escaping with a win despite sleepwalking through three quarters.
It didn't happen. The Rockets made 10 of their first 12 shots in the fourth quarter, tipping in the two errant attempts, including a Shane Battier putback with 3:50 to go that had Houston out front 103-92.
Boston's first honest-to-goodness stop (one that didn't result in a second-chance effort or free throws) didn't come until 2:32 remained in the game when Marquis Daniels hauled in the rebound of an errant Aaron Brooks jumper.
The Celtics were still staring at a double-digit deficit at that point and while Houston didn't register a field goal over the final 3:13, the damage had been done. Boston shot 56.4 percent in the second half and couldn't bail a ship taking on water.
"You have to get stops to win the game," Rivers said, noting that applies for every sport. "Offensive teams don't win [championships] -- they might win regular-season games. We scored every time down [in the fourth quarter], but we couldn't get a stop. We scored six straight times and we actually lost a point on the lead."
Rivers suggested that the Celtics have to fix things mentally or risk having their quest for an 18th banner derailed. For their part, the starters acknowledged the need to right a ship sailing off course.
"We're a defensive-minded group and, for some reason, over the last couple games, it's just not happening," Pierce said. "I don't know. I mean everyone's got to look themselves in the mirror, check themselves at the door and just figure this out."
Ray Allen wasn't sure the effort fit Rivers' description as the worst defensive performance of the past four seasons, but admitted it wasn't pretty.
"I won't say it's the worst, but I thought there was a stretch that we just couldn't stop anybody," Allen said. "I blame the starting five, because we gave them too much confidence early. That fourth-quarter stretch came, where it seemed like they hit everything, and guys were where they needed to be, in position, rotating and they scored.
"Then we did a terrible job of rebounding. And times we did stop them, they got their hands on the ball and tipped it back out or tipped it into the rim. Those are the things early in the game we've got to put a lid on."
Rivers isn't concerned about a random January loss; those things happen. What worries him is the lackadaisical effort combined with an overconfidence that left his players thinking they could just show up and roll through a floundering Rockets squad.
He doesn't want the Celtics to look back in June and lament what could have been. Sort of like his team did all this summer after falling to the Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals in Los Angeles.
There's a message painted on the wall of the Celtics' weight room that will greet players as they enter for practice Tuesday morning: "What hurts more, the pain of hard work or the pain of regret?"
Rivers wants his team to see the bigger picture. Boston is going to lose games, but those losses absolutely cannot be the result of a lack of effort. He said he's not panicked about the recent struggles, but knows corrections must be made.
He'll be fine if this is still the worst defensive effort of the Big Three era at season's end.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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