BOSTON -- The party line has not changed and, frankly, it shouldn't. The Celtics shook off Wednesday night's tough, one-point loss to San Antonio, preferring to focus on the positive (the superb second half) instead of the negative (the execrable first half.)
That is the way they have been looking at things all season and no single loss, even as painful as the one Wednesday night, is going to change that. It would have been terrific had they started this diabolical schedule stretch with a W, especially in light of Philly getting smoked and with the dreaded Chicago Bulls on tap Thursday night.
But it didn't happen. It was a night of woulda, coulda, shouldas and the Spurs proved to be one point better, 87-86.
"We understand that [Wednesday] was a big blow, but we just have to be ready mentally and physically, come into Chicago and try to get a win," said Paul Pierce, who couldn't connect on the game winner.
Still, Pierce said he still likes what he sees, Wednesday's loss notwithstanding.
"I like the way we're playing right now, since the All-Star break," said Pierce of the Celtics, who are 15-6 since the All-Star break. "I think we have definitely gotten better over the last month or so. The only thing now we just hope we can get healthy, still play at this type of level and if we continue to play like this, we're going to win a lot of games down the stretch and in the playoffs."
The Celtics played a spectacular second half, holding one of the league's top offensive teams to 28 points, including an astonishing nine in the third quarter. But all that did was get them back in the game, because they had allowed an inexcusable 59 points in the first half as the Spurs pretty much did anything they wanted.
The Celtics can take away the fact that they had a chance to beat a red-hot team (winners of nine straight and hot on Oklahoma City's tail) and nearly pulled it off when Doc Rivers rolled out a lineup that at times featured no one taller than 6-foot-7. Avery Bradley absolutely suffocated Manu Ginobili, and he and Rajon Rondo basically took the Spurs' MVP candidate, Tony Parker, out of the game. Parker was on the bench for the final 2:33 and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he thought the Celtics' physical play "got in the head of a couple of our players." He didn't elaborate, but Parker and Ginobili were pretty much nonfactors in this one save for one huge offensive rebound/assist by Ginobili.
Ah yes, we are back to rebounding. The Celtics got crushed on the glass yet again (53-39), and the result was a game-changing 18-4 advantage in second-chance points for the Spurs. The last two San Antonio baskets, a 3-pointer by Gary Neal and a shot-clock-beating hoop by Matt Bonner off a mad scramble, were second-chance baskets. The Celtics also missed seven of 13 free throws.
And yet, there they were, poised to win a game in which they had once trailed by 17 points. Pierce had the ball in isolation on Tim Duncan, and while you wouldn't want that matchup 10 years ago, you'd want it now. Pierce elected for one of his elbow step-backers, but it didn't fall. As Jack Nicholson memorably noted in "Terms of Endearment" -- "We were this close to a clean getaway."
Say what you will, but warts and all, these guys refuse to pack it in.
"A lot of good things happened," Rivers said. "I don't know if we're building or not building or any of that stuff. We're playing good basketball. We like our team."
Nonetheless, this would have been a huge win, maybe even topping Sunday's spanking of Miami, and it would have been the ideal way to start the team on this Voyage of the Damned stretch they have over the next two weeks. They have to go into Chicago to play the Bulls on Thursday night, on the second night of a back-to-back, with Chicago having not played since Monday and Derrick Rose supposedly ready to return. Does anyone think the Celtics can get that one? Then they have Indiana and Philadelphia back-to-back on Saturday and Easter Sunday.
"Thank you, Stern. Thank you, Billy," Kevin Garnett said, referring to the truncated schedule put together by NBA commissioner David Stern and players' union head Billy Hunter. Or, as Ray Allen observed, "This two weeks is territory that none of us is familiar with. Baseball players are laughing at us. They're saying, 'These guys are wimps.'"
The Celtics are still two games up on the 76ers in the loss column and have Philly at home on Sunday. (Every game they've played against the 76ers this season has been on the second night of a back-to-back.) They profess to be unconcerned about where they finish and who they might meet in the playoffs (assuming they get there, of course.) They could face the possibility of not having home-court advantage in any round even if they win the Atlantic Division.
Sure, a victory over the Spurs would have been huge. But in defeat, they may have found something -- the small lineup -- that will help them going forward. So while an opportunity was missed, all was not lost.