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Will the Boston Celtics be focused Friday night against the Houston Rockets?Following unsightly back-to-back losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers, the Celtics responded with a thorough 31-point beat down of the Milwaukee Bucks Sunday, helping to halt some of the negative criticism that was starting to surface. After the 87-56 win over the Bucks, Celtics forward Kevin Garnett pointed to a renewed focus from the team as a key ingredient in the decisive victory.
"Today was just a different focus," Garnett said. "We don't like to lose around here. We definitely don't like multiple losses. We're working for something that's bigger than everybody here, and today we had that focus."
Unfortunately, the Celtics didn't appear to pack that newfound focus on their flight to New Jersey, as they suffered a string of key mental lapses down the stretch the following night in another head-scratching 88-79 loss to the Nets. Sure, the Celtics have suffered on the second night of back-to-backs all season, and coach Doc Rivers told reporters after the loss that he wasn't particularly concerned over the issue. But he also spoke on the issue of mental toughness, and how his team hasn't been spot-on in that department.
"It doesn't bother me unless they're going to start having back-to-backs in the playoffs," said Rivers. "I'm not that concerned by it. It bothers me that we're not mentally tougher, because, to me, all back-to-backs are is a mental toughness thing and we've struggled all year. If we could take the back-to-backs out, we'd have the best record in the NBA, but we can't, and where it doesn't bother me is, again, you don't have those in the playoffs. You have rest and so that's a good thing. But [they] still are losses and you're losing ground by losing games."
For all of the well-deserved acknowledgment of the Celtics' injury woes, have they also been battling a stinging case of mental fatigue -- particularly Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Garnett? After all, a heavier burden had been placed on these four in recent weeks, due to not only the injuries but the flurry of acquisitions that saw five new players join the roster. The Core Four had to keep the Celtics cruising along while the new guys got acclimated, seeing as they are in a dogfight with the Chicago Bulls for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
After a while, though, that extra burden appeared to take its toll, beginning with the team's first loss (to the Clippers) since Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic joined the roster. Including that game, the Celtics have trailed at the end of the first quarter in three of their last five games. That can arguably be attributed more to mental fatigue than physical fatigue. In terms of the respective states of their bodies, the Celtics would have obviously been at their freshest at the beginning of those contests.
What has hurt even more though, has been the inconsistent support the Big Four have received over this recent stretch of three losses in their last five games. The bench is there for a reason -- to provide relief for the starters. But with key pieces in Glen Davis and Delonte West missing for stretches, and the new guys contributing on an infrequent basis, that relief didn't always materialize, which had to take a toll on the minds of the starters as much as it did on their bodies.
Against the Clippers, the Celtics trailed by 13 at the end of the first quarter. When the starters began filing back in roughly four minutes into the second quarter, the deficit hadn't gotten any smaller.
A similar issue arose against the 76ers in the following game. The Celtics trailed by three at the end of the first quarter, and the bench didn't relieve any of the pressure on the starters, as Philly's lead blossomed to six by the time Pierce and Co. re-entered the game.
"I think we're just in one of those phases, that's all," Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told Boston Sports radio WEEI (850 AM) on Thursday. "I don't think it's any big deal. I just don't think [the Big Four are] playing well. The ball's not going in the hole for them like it normally does, it's the dog days of the season, I don't know. I don't think they're tired, although I think that each one of them might be tired here and there. I don't think Rondo is 100 percent, and I don't think he's played particularly well lately, and I don't think that anyone's really stepping up and carrying them."
That trend of no one "stepping up and carrying them" changed for the better on Wednesday night in a 92-80 victory over the Pacers. Once again the starters stumbled out of the gate, and Indiana led 20-15 at the end of the first quarter. But the bench, bolstered by the return of Delonte West, put forth a legitimate effort in the second frame, led by Green, who scored 13 of the Celtics' first 16 points in the second quarter, and for the first time in what seemed like games, the starters came back in energized, not having to deal with the burden of digging their team out of another hole. Within two minutes of Pierce checking back in the latter half of the frame, he and Allen buried three straight 3-pointers, as part of an 11-2 run by the starters that gave the Celtics an eventual 57-40 halftime lead.
Even better, with the exception of Allen, none of the Big Four had to play in the fourth quarter against Indiana, as the bench was able to close things out. As much as guys like West, Green, and Davis will help to limit the minutes of the Core Four, they'll also help to ease the extra burden they've been carrying the last week and a half. With West and Davis back in the swing of things (hopefully for the rest of the season), the bench is once again becoming more complete, and is finally in a suitable position once again to provide the needed relief for the starters. That arguably matters just as much from a mental standpoint as much as it does from a physical one.
"Our team's going to be dependent upon how our main players play, our core guys," Ainge told WEEI. "That's going to be the most important telling factor of our success, and so they're freshness and health is [the] No. 1 priority."
Greg Payne is a student intern for ESPNBoston.com