- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- More than an hour had passed since the Boston Celtics fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night before an apologetic Kevin Garnett emerged from the team's training room inside TD Garden.
He apologized for making everyone wait. He apologized for Boston's struggles. He apologized for all the apologies.
"I know you're all probably getting tired of hearing this; I'm sure if you all rewind your tapes, I'll have a different outfit saying the same thing -- but we're going to continue to work and we're going to continue to get better," Garnett said. "I really believe that. You've got to believe that."
Few doubt the Celtics will improve. Heck, it's hard to imagine them getting much worse. Boston is 4-8 and hasn't beaten a playoff-caliber team this season, its only wins coming against the Washington Wizards (twice), New Jersey Nets (without their two best players) and Detroit Pistons -- three Eastern Conference doormats with a combined record of 7-33.
During their five-game losing streak -- the longest of this Big Three era -- the Celtics have shown signs for encouragement, but the games have ended the same way: with a loss and, so far, empty promises to turn things around.
Truth be told, Monday's loss was the most encouraging of the bunch. Facing perhaps the best team in the NBA, one with old friend Kendrick Perkins in the middle of the starting lineup, the Celtics hung tough for 48 minutes, only to watch the Thunder hit some ridiculous shots down the stretch and emerge with a 97-88 triumph.
After the game, everyone from Garnett to coach Doc Rivers to captain Paul Pierce accentuated the positive, suggesting the team is on the cusp of turning the corner.
But that in and of itself might be the most depressing aspect of this dismal start. Four years removed from hoisting the golden Larry O'Brien trophy, the Celtics are left clinging to silver linings.
"At the end of the day, none of us in here likes to lose," Pierce said. "That's the frustrating part. But from every win we can take some positives and from losses you can take some positives. I think I like where we're headed. It's just little things that are really killing us."
Pierce went on to point out what plagued Boston on Monday -- the Thunder turning a whopping 19 turnovers into 24 points, while Boston somehow mustered just two points (two?!) off 13 Thunder giveaways.
After pointing to specific issues, Pierce stopped and sighed, saying, "We have to go out there and do it."
The sentiment was echoed by Rivers.
"I didn't like us the first couple of games [of this losing streak] because we just didn't play well," Rivers said. "The last couple, you can just see it coming. But you have to break through at some point."
Even in victory, the Celtics haven't put together a thorough, 48-minute effort. They've been plagued by slow starts and early deficits throughout the season. That's not necessarily a new problem, as Boston often has let teams hang around in recent years.
But the Celtics always found a way to smother their opponent late, ratcheting up their defense and delivering crisp offensive execution to pull away down the stretch.
This season, they've watched teams such as the Thunder, Dallas Mavericks and Chicago Bulls give them a taste of their own medicine. The insinuation: Championship-caliber teams -- as we believe Dallas, Oklahoma City and Chicago to be -- find a way to make those big plays. Teams that are golfing in June -- as Boston was last year -- do not.
For the Celtics, the bottom line is simply playing better basketball. It's making those layups they keep blowing. It's valuing the basketball instead of giving it away in key moments. It's finding a way to make pivotal late-game stops.
Rivers told his team in training camp that there would be no excuses this season, but all we've seemingly heard is reasons why this team hasn't been able to put it together.
Enough talk. Just go do it.
Even with their struggles, the Celtics at least are not turning on each other.
"We don't point fingers," Pierce said. "We have a veteran group in this locker room, and each and every game we come in here and talk about what we need to do better, and that's just the maturity of us. Usually young teams, when they go through a stretch like this, they start pointing the finger, and I've been a part of those groups. Everybody wants to do it themselves, but this is not that group. This is a group that's going to come back from this stretch and respond well."
The Celtics have their supporters, even if they are somewhat biased (both inside their locker room and out). Perkins told anyone who would listen Monday that the Celtics will rip off a 10-game winning streak in late February and that he thinks they'll make some noise in the playoffs. He also admitted he's still emotionally attached to the team.
But that notion is what Boston is leaning on right now -- the idea that this start ultimately won't matter when the playoffs roll around. The Celtics truly believe that as long as they can get to the postseason, they have a chance to make a run regardless of seeding.
They might be right. But it's not exactly a championship formula.
Which is why the Celtics probably will understand if you find that hard to believe. At this point, it's hard to think this team is capable of much better than winning one playoff series -- and maybe not even that.
One has to wonder what the next move will be if the team can't put it together soon. Some have called for Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to blow it up. But that simply might not be feasible.
With the contracts of Garnett and Ray Allen set to come off the books after the season -- and Pierce an amnesty candidate this offseason if the team really wants to get crazy and overhaul the roster -- the team doesn't have to maneuver for cap flexibility. The only way Ainge would make a trade would be if he could get young talent at manageable dollars, and that's rarely available, even from contenders.
So the Celtics might be committed to this last rodeo. It's been a bumpy start, and there's no guarantee things will smooth out. But their best chance might be simply to hold the course and see what happens.
And if they go that route, at least they'll truly have no excuses and no reason to apologize.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.
17hMatt Walks, ESPN.com