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Celtics need new attitude

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / February 12, 2012
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The anger and disappointment on the face of Doc Rivers was a rare sight. The Celtics have played poorly plenty of times during his tenure as coach, even during the Big Three Era. And many losses could be attributed to fatigue or simply lack of execution.

But Friday night in Toronto drew ire from Rivers because it appeared that he wasn’t getting through to his players, especially the veterans. His starters began the game against the Raptors so slowly that the University of Ontario would have been a more capable opponent.

Toronto gave the Celtics every opportunity to recover from their putrid beginning. But the fact that the Celtics decided to play harder in the fourth quarter was even more appalling to Rivers because it was apparent they had ignored his pleas earlier.

This 86-74 loss was an example, perhaps, of why Rivers contemplated stepping down before the previous two seasons - because he felt hints of being tuned out. Now, this is not to say the Celtics have turned their backs on Rivers and are on their own agenda. But he came away from that loss discouraged, and today’s game against the Chicago Bulls at TD Garden will be one of the more important regular-season games in Rivers’s tenure.

After Friday’s loss, Rivers gathered his coaching staff and met privately. He waited 25 minutes before addressing the media and allowed the players time to talk amongst each other.

Rivers used terms such as “not professional,’’ “mentally weak,’’ and a personal favorite, “unCeltic.’’

Those words serve as a personal challenge to his players, and not just the young and inexperienced ones, but also Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen.

Pierce has had subpar evenings before, but the way he allowed journeyman James Johnson to drive past him for easy layups was embarrassing. Johnson had totaled 11 points in the previous two matchups with the Celtics on 4-for-18 shooting. On Friday night, he was LeBron James.

The Celtics face Chicago twice in the next five days, and for them to avoid being totally outclassed, they desperately need a better mental approach.

There were times early in the Big Three era when the Celtics appeared to begin games ahead, 10-0, because the opponents were so intimidated. Rondo would grab the opening tip and take command of the game. He never allowed his personal issues or bad calls to unnerve him (as they did Friday).

Rondo insists that he pays no attention to his point guard brethren, but he was bothered that New Jersey’s Deron Williams (shooting 41 percent for an 8-20 team) was chosen to the Eastern Conference All-Star team as a reserve. Rondo is leading the Eastern Conference in assists and likely would have piled up more if he hadn’t missed eight games with a sprained right wrist.

Asked if he is using the All-Star omission as motivation, he said, “Not me. It is what it is.’’

Rondo may be one of the more intelligent players in the NBA and plays mind games with the media, attempting to confuse reporters with his answers, a guise for hiding his emotions.

He is not a revealing player, so he wasn’t going to express his disappointment about being left out of All-Star Weekend during his prime years. Allen and Garnett have the age excuse, but Rondo took it as a personal slight from the conference’s coaches.

Rondo has to push that adversity aside quickly, and Pierce no longer can celebrate passing Larry Bird on the team’s all-time scoring list. In what could be the final season of the Big Three, the Celtics have to apply full concentration in every game, even against the bad teams. They have to concentrate, execute, play hard, and no longer can rely on the Celtic name for any advantage.

Their opponents aren’t intimidated anymore. Toronto’s Amir Johnson was jawing with Garnett after hitting a late jumper and told reporters the Raptors had to figuratively “punch them in the mouth.’’

Rivers senses the urgency of the moment. Games cannot be wasted. First quarters cannot be given away.

For the Celtics to even compete with the Bulls and Heat, there needs to be a collective effort greater than what they exhibited during the championship year, because this team is older and less talented. The belief that they are a title-contending team should remain, but the arrogance and presumption that they have an automatic advantage have to subside.

“I wouldn’t be playing if I didn’t [think we were a contender],’’ Rondo said Friday. “Especially with this type of talent around me, our coaching staff, I think we’re a pretty good team still even though this is two [straight] games we’ve lost.

“I don’t know our record. I don’t really care about our record as long as we continue to grow. Tonight we took a step back but I don’t think it’s that difficult to try to adjust it.’’

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