Bad bounces, deities, and dog days, miscommunication and misfiring. Since Christmas Day, those factors have trumped the Big Three, leprechauns, and ubuntu.
At least that's how the Celtics are explaining a slump that grew to 2-6 with an 89-85 loss to the Houston Rockets last night at TD Banknorth Garden.
The Rockets (22-15) crunched the Celtics (29-8) in crunch time, limiting them to two field goals over the final 8:34 and scoring the final 5 points as Boston's best shooters - Ray Allen and Paul Pierce - were off the mark.
"Overall, I thought we got the looks we wanted, but that's when the offense and the defense comes into play," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "You've got to get stops, and what happens if you don't, then you put more pressure on your offense."
The Year of the Celtic seems like a fading memory as the team's trademark strong finishes have turned into late-game collapses, a reversal of form as well as fortune. The Celtics also squandered late chances in a 114-106 overtime defeat in Charlotte Tuesday, continuing a trend that began with a Dec. 25 loss to the Lakers, the start of a road trip that broke not only the Celtics' 19-game winning streak but also their spell on the opposition.
Now the slump has come home to roost - this loss snapped a 13-game home winning streak dating to Nov. 14 - and relegated the Celtics to second place in the Eastern Conference going into tomorrow's matchup at first-place Cleveland.
"I told the guys, a lot of balls were bouncing around, going the other way," Rivers said. "Same thing that went your way during the 19-game stretch - we won some games we had no business winning. We got the right bounce. We made the right shot. Right now, we're getting the same shot, they're going in and out. They're getting second shots off long rebounds and making shots. They're having role players step up and make threes. This is how it is. This is just the NBA's basketball gods sometimes. You've just got to stay with each other and keep playing."
The last-minute "ins" were a 3-pointer by Von Wafer with 43 seconds remaining - less than a minute after his airball led to the Celtics' last lead - and a Yao Ming (26 points) follow. The "outs" included a Pierce charge and missed 17-footer, and an Allen lefthanded banker rolling off the rim.
But the Celtics' fate was set up long before that.
They overturned a 7-point deficit with a spirited rally in the third quarter. And the Celtics had a 5-point advantage in the final quarter, but hit a 5:51 field goal drought.
Gabe Pruitt was the only Celtic to score in the first 7:43 of the final quarter. Pruitt's 3-pointer extended the Celtics' lead to 77-72 with 10:03 to go, and another Pruitt jumper reestablished a 5-point advantage with 8:34 left.
But the Celtics' offense failed, and Aaron Brooks's 3-pointer off the dribble gave Houston an 81-79 edge with 4:32 remaining. A Kevin Garnett miss was the Celtics' 11th in 13 attempts in the quarter, the Rockets then taking an 83-81 lead on Yao's turnaround with 3:17 remaining.
Pierce (26 points) started producing clutch plays - he drew Ron Artest's sixth foul, then tied the score at 83 with 2:43 to play. Rajon Rondo's layup off a Garnett bounce pass put the Celtics up, 85-84, with 1:34 remaining. A Garnett block on Brooks set the stage for the Celtics to take charge - but Pierce was called for a charge and the Rockets clinched the win on a Wafer 3-pointer with 43 seconds to go and a Yao follow after a Pierce miss.
"Right now, our defense is not getting the job done," Pierce said. "That's one of the first things we talk about. That's the type of team we are, and when we don't defend, it doesn't allow us to get out and run the break. We're not causing turnovers like we want to. You can defend us in the half-court and get us into a slowdown game, which we can play. But our goal is go out there and shut things down. We are allowing too much dribble penetration. I told the guys we need to get our defensive swagger back. It's been broke these last 10 or 12 days. We know what we're capable of - it's just about going back to the basics and doing what we do.
"I think the confidence is still there. It's a long season, and that's what we try to tell each other. We bend but we don't break, that's what it's all about. We preach the word 'ubuntu' and what it means - that through difficult times, we stay together."
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com>