Mental smartness. Not the most eloquent turn of phrase, but perhaps the most accurate. The way it was used in the Celtics' locker room last night, it covers the ability to stay mentally tough through four quarters, to avoid costly mental lapses, to know what to do down the stretch in a close game. The phrase connotes a kind of basketball intelligence that has less to do with instinct and more to do with execution. Not surprisingly, mental smartness, effort, and focus go hand in hand.
According to Ricky Davis, the Celtics lack the mental smartness to win games such as the one they played last night against the Chicago Bulls. He is right. The errors the Celtics made in the closing minutes were of the what-were-they-thinking variety.
Luol Deng (28 points) nailed a momentum-shifting 3-pointer from the left corner while Paul Pierce talked to a referee. The Celtics blew coverage on plays they expected the Bulls to run, plays they reviewed in practice umpteen times. They committed turnover after turnover after turnover while trying to cling to the lead late in the fourth quarter. (The Celtics finished with 21 turnovers that led to 24 points.) They struggled on the glass (outrebounded, 47-34) and allowed 24 second-chance points.
And while players said the offensive plan down the stretch was to ride a hot-handed Pierce (43 points), that also may not have been the smartest move. The Celtics are usually at their most productive when they go with a multifaceted attack.
Once again, a combination of largely mental errors doomed Boston (6-9) down the stretch. Chicago, a team just as young but evidently more determined than Boston, capitalized. The Bulls overcame a 7-point, fourth-quarter deficit and made big shots over the final few minutes to earn a 106-102 win. Once again, Boston failed to win two games in a row.
Once again, the Celtics were left with a lot of couldas, shouldas, wouldas. They coulda played better defense down the stretch, instead of allowing Chris Duhon, Ben Gordon, and Deng free reign from the arc. They shoulda started the game with more energy. Then, they woulda had coach Doc Rivers on the sideline for the entire game instead of in his office watching after being ejected with 5:32 left in the second quarter in an effort to fire up his team. Now the Celtics start a five-game road trip with a lot more baggage than they would like.
''When the pressure is on us with the lead, we tend to fall off," said Davis, who went 3 for 11 from the floor for 12 points. ''I don't know [why that is]. We need to get more mental smartness. We're still making young mistakes. We need to get it together."
Almost as soon as the Celtics went ahead by 7 points early in the fourth, they appeared to lose focus. With Boston leading, 87-80, with 7:22 left in the final quarter, Chicago staged an 18-6 run that Deng capped with a 3-pointer. It was a shot that fell while Pierce was otherwise engaged and pushed the Bulls ahead, 98-93, with 1:54 remaining. From that point, Chicago did not need another field goal to seal the win; all the Bulls did was go a perfect 8 for 8 from the line. Meanwhile, Pierce tried to take over for Boston. He did, but a pair of driving layups and a 3-pointer was not enough.
''Paul had a big night, but we had a bunch of guys who had success in tonight's game and helped us in different areas," said Gordon (20 points). ''So you have got to beat a team as opposed to one guy doing everything."
With the Celtics calling the loss a learning experience, they would be smart to take that statement as an invaluable lesson. But the biggest lesson to be learned from last night is one of approach. The Celtics did not bring the proper mind-set to the TD Banknorth Garden, and Delonte West thought that sealed the team's fate long before the tight fourth quarter. During a low-energy first half, the Celtics fell behind by 15 points, before entering halftime trailing, 56-48.
''The game was a tale of the first half," said West (11 points). ''We came in for walkthrough [yesterday morning] and it just seemed like we were preparing to play a basketball game, not win a game. I think it carried over into the game. That was evident in the effort and the energy level out there in the first half. For most of the games we've lost this year, it's coming down to the last couple minutes of the game. They did hit some big shots late in the game. We can tighten up on finishing games out. We can't keep using being young as an excuse."