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The Celtics returned from Charlotte rather confused.
The team that lost to the Bobcats Tuesday was the one the detractors predicted would appear when Rajon Rondo was felled with a torn ACL — a team that would succumb under difficult circumstances, weaken against more athletic opponents, and make even the most meager of foes look formidable.
While last Sunday’s loss to Oklahoma City was an admirable effort — the Celtics defended the Thunder like few opponents have — Tuesday’s 100-74 defeat at the hands of the league’s worst team was an utter embarrassment, leaving those who joined the post-Rondo bandwagon to wonder whether the Celtics’ confidence had been shot by one road defeat.
Wednesday’s home game against the Raptors was perhaps the most important of the season for the Celtics. Toronto had pushed the Warriors deep into the fourth quarter on the road before falling and then had the Lakers beat before losing in overtime to a heroic Kobe Bryant.
So the Raptors were no slouches, although the Celtics made them look that way in the final quarter and a half. The 112-88 win not only snapped a two-game losing streak but reaffirmed the Celtics’ confidence in themselves.
While they raced out to a 14-4 record without Rondo, their first two-game losing streak (especially considering the way they played in Charlotte), stood as a real mental test for this bunch.
While the Celtics seemingly righted and reinvented themselves after Rondo and Jared Sullinger went down with season-ending injuries, they had not faced true on-court adversity until Tuesday. Paul Pierce was given the night off, and his teammates apparently followed suit, to the point where the Celtics were sullen on the flight back to Boston.
“I don’t know what happened in Charlotte, to be honest, man,” said Kevin Garnett. “I’ve been in this league a long time, and nights like that are going to happen. It’s how you bounce back and rebound from those nights.
“We came out with an edge [Wednesday]. We have to continue to play like that throughout the duration of these 18 games we have left. I thought we were aggressive. That’s something we have to be consistent with.”
In many ways, the Celtics are still learning about themselves, and perhaps they got a little complacent entering the Charlotte game. The Bobcats come to TD Garden Saturday night for the rematch, and you would think that should motivate the Celtics.
One thing has been noticeable — not that it has anything to do with Rondo’s absence — and it is that the Celtics have played hard for 48 minutes throughout the past six weeks. They didn’t relent, for example, when they were behind by 9 points with 4:36 left at Indiana.
And the Oklahoma City loss can be attributed more to a lack of execution and poor shooting than weakening in the face of a superior opponent.
Because they lack their best player and floor general, the Celtics have taken less for granted, so what was shocking about the Charlotte loss was that they reverted to their early-season ways of caving in when circumstances weren’t ideal on the road.
“Obviously, the last two losses weren’t what we wanted, especially against Charlotte, but what we said to ourselves was we’re going to put that out of our mind and come ready to play [Wednesday],” guard Jason Terry said.
“To see the resiliency, to see us battle back, is what we were looking for because earlier in the season, two losses would have turned into six and we would have gotten down on ourselves, and you just didn’t see that [Wednesday]. And that was a big step for us.”
It took Terry weeks to warm to Doc Rivers’s system and understand his role, just as it did for Courtney Lee and Chris Wilcox. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge wanted his retooled club to get off to a better start, but it didn’t, mired in chemistry issues. Strangely, the Celtics didn’t truly galvanize as a team until they had to — when Rondo was injured.
“Sometimes it’s right away and other times it takes as long as it has to this point,” Terry said. “I just think for us, it’s been so much adversity we’ve went through this season that it’s just been tough.
“Now it’s molded us into who we are. We’re a very resilient team. Again, our identity is on the defensive end. Offensively, when we’re at our best, we’re moving the ball and getting into transition.
“It’s uplifting to know, ‘OK it is what we thought it was,’ because after two disappointing losses, I knew we would bounce back. But you actually have to go out and do it.
“I think it was reaffirming that we are a resilient team.”