Games like the one Boston played last night give reason for optimism.
OK, not the entire game. Take just the fourth quarter when the Celtics rallied from a 12-point deficit and closed within 3 before dropping a 107-100 decision to the Utah Jazz for the second disturbing loss of the night.
The first came when Sebastian Telfair left the game late in the opening quarter with shortness of breath. Doctors at New England Baptist Hospital diagnosed Telfair with bronchospasm and allowed him to travel with the team to Cleveland for tonight's game.
While Telfair underwent tests at the hospital, the sold-out TD Banknorth Garden shook with excitement in the fourth quarter when Paul Pierce nailed a pair of 3-pointers, Rajon Rondo fed Delonte West with a bounce pass for a 3-point play, Kendrick Perkins barreled through a crowd of defenders for a layup, and Ryan Gomes scored twice on the same kind of shot.
But all the solid play in the fourth could not make the Celtics forget what happened in the third. And the third would temper the optimism of even the most devoted fan.
It was a tie game, 56-56, when the Celtics decided defense was an optional exercise and allowed Utah to stage a 15-0 run. Deron Williams (26 points, 14 assists), who was always ready to disrupt the Celtics' momentum with a big basket here and a big basket there, started the run with a driving layup. Then, a pair of 3-pointers from Mehmet Okur (23 points) got the Jazz rolling. Andrei Kirilenko capped the run with a 3-pointer and layup.
When the Celtics started the third quarter flat, coach Doc Rivers knew he needed to do something to change the game's speed and take the Jazz out of the offense they were running so successfully. The Jazz led by as many as 17 points before a small, quicker lineup of Tony Allen, Rondo, Gerald Green, Perkins, and Pierce made minimal inroads. Boston finished the third trailing, 82-70.
"They came out and they executed," said Pierce (game-high 30 points). "It just goes to show you that when you don't play the defense that you need to play, you dig yourselves in a hole. We understand what we can do offensively. Until it sinks into our head, we'll continue to go out there and try to outscore people. In this league, it's hard [to do that]. You've got to go out there and have some resistance on defense, to dig in and get stops when necessary."
In every loss this season (and there are four), the Celtics knew exactly what they needed to do, but failed to execute. As Pierce commented, they often have four players on the same page and another not where he needs to be. Defensive breakdowns inevitably follow.
This is similar to observations made last season when the Celtics rarely found themselves all on the same page. Given that recent history and the final result last night, it was understandable the players did not want to emphasize the positives. If the Celtics were united in anything last night, it was their unwillingness to see silver linings in the defeat.
It all came back to what the Celtics didn't do against Utah, especially in the third.
"We had to exert all that energy and came out with a loss," said Gomes (11 points, 9 rebounds). "If we had come back more aggressive and ready in the third quarter, then it probably wouldn't have come down to [the fourth]."
Coming off his first career triple-double, Gomes made sure the Celtics stayed close in the final minutes of the second quarter and entered halftime trailing only 52-48. Gomes made his impact on the offensive and defensive glass, giving the Celtics second chances at the basket and making sure Utah did not get the same benefit on the other end.
Gomes tied the game at 43 scoring off a Rondo miss. On the Celtics' next possession, Gomes again grabbed an offensive rebound and got to the line. He made one of two free throws, bringing the Celtics back within 1.
But in the final two minutes of the first half, Kirilenko came alive after a slow start and ensured the Jazz entered the break ahead. He pushed Utah in front, 47-46, with a reverse layup. Then, displaying considerable ballhanding skills for someone 6 foot 9 inches, he stole the ball, dribbled behind his back on the break to avoid a defender, and dunked to establish Utah's halftime advantage.
The Celtics know that last night's game could easily serve as a metaphor for the 2006-07 campaign. The Celtics cannot afford to dig themselves a hole when it comes to wins and losses if they want to finish the season with a positive result like a playoff berth.
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.