There are two ways to look at the dreary state of the Celtics just four days into the NBA regular season: You can stress the obvious -- they have played only two games. Or you can stress the obvious -- this team has some significant issues to work out, and they've played only two games.
"So many defensive breakdowns," said big man Kendrick Perkins, after his team fell to the Detroit Pistons, 101-88, last night at the Garden. "Instead of pointing fingers at each other every time we make a mistake, we need to look in the mirror and say, 'That was me.'
"I know I had some breakdowns on defense in that game. Everyone in here needs to man up to their own mistakes."
Speaking of mistakes, is it too late to rescind the declaration that Boston is dedicating this season to Red Auerbach? The greatest Celtic of them all deserves better than this.
Auerbach would have blanched at the utter lack of defensive intensity the home team exhibited in this game. Don't believe me? Look at the halftime box score . At the intermission, the Pistons had committed zero turnovers. They had just six for the game. Sure doesn't sound like the men in green were getting after it, does it?
Defense has long been the glaring weakness of this collection of not-quite-ready-for-prime-time kids.
Last season, their pressure and concentration often wilted in the waning moments of a quarter (or possession), when defense should be at a premium. Last night, after forging a 46-42 advantage just before halftime, the Celtics allowed Rip Hamilton, the Pistons' most lethal shooter, to catch the ball and launch a three at the buzzer.
Naturally, it dropped through. You should have seen Doc Rivers's face after that one.
"I thought we should have been up by 10 or 12 points at halftime," said the coach. "Against a veteran team, if you just let them hang around, eventually you are asking for trouble."
The troubles came in various forms. The Celtics would hunker down, appear to be ready to commit to a good defensive stop, then foul whoever had the ball with the shot clock dwindling to three seconds or less.
Offensively, they settled too often for perimeter jumpers they couldn't convert. And, after Paul Pierce developed a hot hand in the third quarter, they inexplicably went away from him. Ditto for forward Al Jefferson early in the fourth quarter, whose jump hook over Rasheed Wallace with 11 minutes to play gave Boston a 74-73 lead.
Much of what is ailing Boston's lineup is an old refrain. Pierce still manages to eke out his share of shots and points, but he needs a trusty sidekick, and at present no such consistent and reliable presence exists.
The captain maintained a convincing stiff upper lip last night as he reminded anyone who would listen that the team is a work in progress and the season is still very young.
Kind of like his team.
"We had 'em, but they wanted it more than we did at the end of the game," said Jefferson.
He was asked if he found that fact upsetting, that a team that is learning to play without its departed defensive binky, Ben Wallace, a team that gave up 70 points in the paint Wednesday night against Milwaukee (and then only 17 to the Celtics last night) wanted a game on the road in Boston's building more than the Celtics did.
"I guess it is pretty upsetting," Jefferson answered, "but it's the truth.
"I'm not even going to use the word young. We've been going over that since training camp and preseason. We're close, but we've had some breakdowns.
"We've got to stick together and find a way to win one."
Based on the postgame comments from their locker room, you would have thought the Celtics were experiencing the January doldrums. When you hear players talking about pointing fingers at one another and stressing the need to "stick together," it suggests some dysfunctional behavior that generally doesn't manifest itself until much later in the season.
"There's still a long way to go," Perkins observed, "but that doesn't change the fact we should have won Wednesday night and we should have won tonight. They outsmarted us.
"I think it comes down to who wanted it more, and they were hungrier than we were."
You've got to wonder what Pierce makes of all of this. His well-documented decision to sign an extension and wait it out with the kids was based on a feeling that some of them were poised to elevate their game to the next level.
Told Jefferson refused to invoke the "we're still young" defense, Pierce smiled wryly.
"Well, I guess most of these guys are over 21 now," he said.
Quick. Name a team loaded with young players that ever did any serious damage in the NBA. It's hard to come up with one. Veterans win championships, not to mention regular-season games. It's teams like the Detroit Pistons, who had all five of their starters in double figures last night, who find ways to steal the close ones.
Rivers insisted his team is close to doing that. He might be right. But it won't happen until his club learns to lock down on the defensive end when the game is on the line.
His 20-something nucleus continues to struggle with that concept.
"They -- we -- have to start learning from our mistakes," Pierce said. "Some of these guys have been here three of four years now.
"It's time to step up."
Game 3 awaits tonight, a road game against a veteran Washington team that has serious playoff aspirations.
"All we need to do is win one, two, three games in a row," Pierce said. "We're not pushing the panic button."
It didn't seem right to point out to Pierce that his team didn't win three in a row all of last season.
Hey, it's only two games, and only two losses.
Funny how last night, though, it felt much worse than that.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.