Celtics on the low end
Inferior Raptors up for payback
TORONTO - With about four minutes left in the game last night, Doc Rivers put his hands on his knees, crouched down, and clapped loudly for his team to play defense, as if he were coaching his son Spencer’s high school team.
The Celtics’ deficit was double digits and Rivers fully realized victory was unlikely. He just wanted his weary crew to play hard for an extended period.
But that was out of the question against the lowly Raptors, who led from wire to wire, handing the Celtics a demoralizing 86-74 defeat.
Rivers knew this road game would be a challenge following Thursday’s overtime loss to the Lakers, but he expected his veteran club to be mentally prepared.
He expected too much.
Following the game, Rivers met with his coaching staff outside the locker room, with the head coach miffed about the mental mistakes and lack of focus. Meanwhile, the Celtics players talked among themselves, trying to figure a remedy for this discouraging tide after winning nine of 10 games.
These were the Celtics of early January. They were unsure of offensive plays, missed numerous defensive assignments while the rebounding (Raptors, 42-34) and loose-ball battle were mismatches.
Obviously angry and visibly bewildered, Rivers took the unusual approach of calling out his players’ desire and passion.
“We were awful,’’ he said. “I was really frustrated with our execution. I mean we couldn’t even run a play out of a timeout. That’s focus or something.
“It’s part of coaching, it shouldn’t be but it is. You have to just keep finding the right button.
“Everybody gets frustrated with each other and I saw that today. Two guys knew the play, one guy didn’t. And it drains energy. Not being a professional drains energy. And being a professional is knowing every set you run, knowing your rotation because it’s draining for the pros who know, who do the work.’’
Rivers then lauded the play of newcomer Mickael Pietrus, perhaps an unveiled shot at veterans who lacked concentration.
“Mickael Pietrus, and I use him as an example, he’s been here the least amount of time and he knows every single rotation and every single set,’’ said Rivers. “Because he’s a pro. And it’s just unacceptable [not to know the sets].’’
When asked if the overtime loss Thursday should be considered a factor in last night’s effort, Rivers said, “If you’re mentally weak. If they want to use the overtime [Thursday], then we are not mentally tough enough to be a winner. If you’re tough, you come in and grind this one out and win it, too. If you’re not, you use [Thursday] as an excuse.”
The Celtics met after the game and one player said it was not a “finger-pointing’’ session but more of a way to hash out some issues and prevent a backslide.
One player’s performance was especially curious. Point guard Rajon Rondo made some uncharacteristic mental mistakes and was completely outplayed by Toronto’s Jose Calderon, who scored 17 points with 14 assists and no turnovers. Rondo, meanwhile, scored 5 points on 2-for-10 shooting with 7 assists and 5 turnovers.
“He was frustrated at halftime and was, ‘Man, I’m playing like crap,’ ’’ Rivers said. “But you still got to just keep playing. Listen, you are going to not play well, but it can’t affect your energy and your effort because everybody’s watching.’’
Rondo couldn’t explain the breakdown.
“We’re human, just didn’t come with it tonight,’’ he said. “You just got forget about it, I do. I’m not going to be too critical. It’s a long season, I think we got 40 games left. Can’t take nothing positive away from this game. [Thursday’s loss] kind of lingered on to this loss today. I think it’s a different story if we win the game last night.’’
Paul Pierce, who is 11 for 29 shooting in his two games since passing Larry Bird for second on the team’s all-time scoring list, continuously allowed unheralded James Johnson to drive past him for easy buckets last night.
“It’s one of those games where you have to be really mentally ready after a long draining loss the night before,’’ Pierce said. “We just didn’t show the mental toughness tonight. We feel like we’re getting so close to the team we want to be and the last couple night to take steps back, it’s definitely frustrating.’’
Rivers was disheartened that his team played lethargic for about three quarters and then decided to increase its intensity and passion in the fourth. By then Toronto was brimming with confidence and countered every Celtic run with one of its own, including three pivotal 3-pointers by reserve Linas Kleiza.
“Like I told them, they put me in a terrible position,’’ the coach said. “That effort, it was just awful. Toronto played with great energy. We beat them by 1,000 the last time we played [actually by 36 on Feb. 1] and they’re grown men, they’re going to think revenge.
“Like I told them, I shouldn’t beg you to play hard. It’s just un-Celtic. That’s why I waited so long [to meet the media]. It wasn’t about me going in there screaming. It was about them talking to each other, or doing whatever. The way we played the last two games, we need to be in a gym, running, playing.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.