C's hope adversity makes them stronger

ATLANTA -- Boston Celtics guard Ray Allen is one of the most thoughtful and eloquent speakers in the league. Unlike some of his peers who simply rehash the same tired cliches, Allen often listens to a question, takes a moment to digest the information, and produces an insightful response.

After Friday's 100-91 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, even Allen didn't have words to describe the Celtics' recent struggles. He could only shrug when asked why Boston has fared so poorly against the brass of the Eastern Conference, including a four-game season sweep at the hands of the Hawks.

It's the kind of struggles the Celtics haven't encountered since the Big 3 were united two seasons ago.

"It's just frustrating," said Allen. "As an athlete, when you lose, sometimes it's best to reserve your opinion. There's things we could have done a lot better -- better execution on offense and defense. We'll watch the film and get a fresher perspective. But it's just frustrating. You have to sit back and try to let this hurt, let it push you to be better.

"It's a new challenge, a new way to deal with things," he said. "It'll force us to be better, whatever happens. Moving forward from here, we have to know that being together is the best thing for all of us. When you sit atop the mountain, you think of all the adversity and bad things that happened to you along the way. Hopefully we can sit there some day."

With Friday's loss to the Hawks, the Celtics slipped a little lower on their ascent up that Eastern Conference mountain, as Atlanta passed them on the climb. Boston has now lost 10 of its last 16 games overall and can feel the Magic, the team that beat the Celtics Thursday in Orlando, breathing down its neck.

Things don't get any easier from here, either. On Sunday, the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers come to the TD Garden for what captain Paul Pierce called a must-win game.

The problem is Boston can't pinpoint its troubles. The Celtics look like an elite team for 36 minutes, then disappear for the final 12 (as they did in falling to Orlando Thursday). Or Boston will perform in 12-minute spurts, but not have enough support from its bench to sustain the charges (as it did in falling to Atlanta Friday).

"We have to realize [our problems] before it's too late," said Pierce.
"Fortunately, we still have [38] games to get it right."

Point guard Rajon Rondo, the first-time All-Star who's always taken a quiet leadership role, typically letting his play speak volumes, admitted that players need to look in the mirror given the team's recent struggles.

"We gotta make a change and do something about it quick," said Rondo.
"Not a trade or anything, but just making some changes in the locker room, amongst ourselves. Every guy has to look in the mirror and hold themselves accountable."

Leave it to Celtics coach Doc Rivers to find a silver lining. One night after being about as disappointed as he could be in his team's performance after letting an 11-point, fourth-quarter lead evaporate while falling to the Magic, Rivers actually found positives to build on in Friday's game.

Long a proponent that nothing this team accomplishes in the regular season will matter unless they bring home the Larry O'Brien trophy in June, Rivers stressed that Boston can learn from this rough patch.

"It means that we lost," Rivers said when asked what Friday's defeat meant to him. "We lost to the Atlanta Hawks, it doesn't mean much more than that. No one wants to get swept, but you don't get to the second round [of the playoffs] when you sweep a team in the regular season.
You just get to the next game."

Rivers took solace in the fact that Kevin Garnett (15 points, 7
rebounds) bounced back from his most dismal performance of the season against Orlando and that Pierce (game-high 35 points) erupted in a way that hadn't been seen since he missed five games with a right knee infection.

In the same way the Celtics can't be satisfied with simply playing in spurts, they can't be satisfied with only part of their roster stepping up to the challenge each night.

"As a coach, you check things off as you go," said Rivers. "We got Paul going [Friday], now we gotta get the others going, too."

The trouble, of course, is that the Celtics don't have an answer as to why they haven't been able to get everyone going at the same time this season.

But if Allen couldn't find that answer Friday night, Garnett promises the Celtics soon will -- and they'll do it as a team.

"We're going to get better," said Garnett. "We're too prideful, too competitive as men, to go another route."

Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.