Better days ahead for Celtics

BOSTON -- The way the Celtics look at it, the car ran out of gas Thursday night and the bumper fell off long ago. Fortunately, there's a gas station in sight and it does repairs.

Still playing without a trio of key players and limping to the finish of a grueling stretch of four games in five nights and three cities, the Celtics sputtered through a 96-83 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Thursday at TD Garden.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers is the last person to make excuses, but when asked if Boston had enough depth to remain competitive, even he took the hopeful position that help is just around the bend.

"We just have a lot of injuries right now," Rivers said. "When you have a lot of injuries, when three of your top six players go out, pick any team you want -- it's going to be tough.

"We want to win all these games. We're working our way through it and we're doing OK, but we want to do even better. Hopefully we get Rasheed [Wallace] back Monday or Wednesday, and Kevin [Garnett] at the end of the week. But we can't wait for them. We've just got to play every night."

While disappointment permeated the Celtics' locker room, there was also an overwhelming sense that the worst is over. Sure, Boston fell to 4-6 in its past 10 games. Yes, the Celtics have already matched their total number of home losses from all of last season.

Yet even as they wait for the tow truck, the Celtics still boast the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and have been competitive in just about every game during the stretch, despite the injuries, illnesses and scheduling difficulties they've encountered.

Even Rivers noted that as badly as Boston performed Thursday -- and it was downright gruesome at times, particularly at the free throw line, where the weary Celtics made just 15 of 28 attempts -- they seemed to be a couple of defensive stops away from stealing a win.

So as Boston enters a much-needed three-day break, there's a sense that things are going to get better sooner rather than later.

"I think once we get healthy, we'll get rolling," center Kendrick Perkins said. "Right now we have to stick together, grind it out, come out there and fight every night. We've just got to stick together; that's the biggest thing. Everybody's got to step their game up just a little bit more.

"Obviously, we miss Rasheed. Obviously, we miss KG. But when we come together, it's going to be night and day."

It was mostly night Thursday. The rested Bulls arrived to find a team on the ropes, and they pounced. Chicago cranked up the intensity from the start, utilizing an early run to build a double-digit cushion, then kept Boston at arm's length the rest of the way.

Boston attacked in spurts but simply couldn't sustain the energy. The Celtics finally cut Chicago's lead to 75-71 with 8:06 to play.

The Bulls answered with three lightning-quick buckets; Joakim Noah's layup put the visitors on top 81-71 with 6:58 left.

"I think we had some fresh legs," Chicago coach Vinny Del Negro said.
"It was their fourth game in five nights. We just wanted to be aggressive."

The Celtics wanted to be aggressive, too; they simply didn't have it in them. Boston had plenty of opportunities, but it seemed like every free throw that clanged off the back iron sapped a little more of its energy.

So while there's plenty to be upset about, the Celtics sought the silver lining.

"There were so many opportunities; just take the free throws," Rivers said. "That's what I kept telling the coaching staff during the timeouts. I didn't say, 'We're playing horrible,' but I did say to our coaches, 'As bad as we're playing, we're two stops away and we can win this game.'

"I thought the warning sign for me came in the third quarter. We tried to make a push right out of the box, and within two or three minutes we couldn't sustain. You know, you could just see it; it just started going away. And I didn't know if we'd win or lose, but I knew it would be a tough night."

A tough night, but there are better nights on the horizon. And even if they can't fix the bumper, the Celtics think the car they have can still keep them on course.

"We played short-handed last year and we won a lot of games, so that's not an excuse," Pierce said. "We don't make excuses. We should win these types of games regardless of how many games [we've played]. We play three or four games in a row and we come back home; we need to make this building a place for teams to feel like they can't win, and we haven't been doing that of late."

Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.