- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers didn't bother masking his frustration following Thursday's loss in Chicago. Boston's too-cool-for-school attitude left Rivers fuming, openly questioning his team's mental toughness as he sounded off with what may have been his strongest tirade of the Big Three era.
"I thought that was the worst loss for us this year, with the way we approached the game," Rivers said.
The 2011-12 season has presented enough obstacles that are beyond Rivers' control that watching his team make things difficult on itself time and time again seemingly has gnawed at him.
One night after letting a winnable game slip away against arguably the best team in the Western Conference (the San Antonio Spurs are at least the hottest team in the league), Boston had an opportunity to knock off the team with the best record in basketball on Thursday, a task made easier by the fact that the Bulls were without star point guard Derrick Rose.
Although his team built a 13-point first-half lead, Rivers didn't like the Celtics' approach and when the Bulls came to life in the second half, Boston appeared to roll over. That's not the type of resolve Rivers wants to see with the playoffs less than three weeks away.
"Bottom line, we're not going to go a lot of places playing with that type of mental toughness," Rivers said. "Chicago's tougher than us right now."
Rivers can't do anything about the condensed schedule. He can't change that the Celtics have lost key players Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox and Jermaine O'Neal for the season, while he's hoping that Mickael Pietrus can overcome a Grade III concussion to return before the playoffs.
But it has to be infuriating to Rivers that his team has had opportunities to make this season easier at times and always seems to choose the path of maximum resistance.
From showing up for the season out of shape and enduring a seesaw first half to letting winnable games such as those of the last two nights slip away, the Celtics have given themselves a bit of an uphill climb while trying to land a favorable position for the postseason.
While the East's top dogs (Chicago, Miami) have taken care of business and will have the option of easing to the regular-season finish line, the Celtics are clinging to a one-game lead over the Philadelphia 76ers in the Atlantic Division, with the winner securing no worse than the No. 4 seed. A daunting remaining schedule means Boston could very well slip to the back end of the seedings, which would set up an undesirable first-round matchup with the Bulls or Heat.
When the Celtics turned around their season by winning 15 of their first 20 games after the All-Star break, Rivers often gushed about the grit of this year's group and how they had found a way to grind through all the adversity they encountered.
But Rivers has to be concerned about the recent slip-ups -- albeit against top opponents -- if only because they suggest that Boston hasn't quite taken its game to the next level, and that's where it will need to be to truly challenge the league's elite in the postseason.
A win Thursday would have gone a long way toward not only aiding Boston's playoff positioning, but in giving the team a mental boost as well. It's unlikely that any opponent is going to overwhelm these playoff-tested Celtics, but there's certainly something to be said for having defeated the team on the other side of the court.
But the Celtics are 1-3 against the Bulls this season and have struggled mightily to match up against them, even with Rose missing the last two meetings. Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer present frontcourt problems for size-robbed Boston, while Luol Deng has been a real offensive pest.
Ultimately, the Celtics likely will have to go through the Bulls in order to challenge for a title, which, fair or not, is the only goal for a team that's been to the top of the mountain with this core.
While Rivers rarely has vented as vehemently as he did Thursday, harsh words often have brought out the best in his troops. Last March in New York, he did something he swears he has never done before, calling his team "soft" during halftime of a game against the Knicks. A rather enraged Kevin Garnett responded by rallying the Celtics to victory in a bloodbath at Madison Square Garden.
Now Rivers has to hope his critical words can again stir his troops. This is a crucial stretch for Boston and the Celtics cannot afford to keep making things difficult on themselves.
Saturday takes the Celtics to Indiana for a visit to a Pacers team it could see in a first-round matchup. Easter Sunday features a head-to-head battle with the 76ers that will go a long way toward determining the division champ. The following week features games against Miami and Atlanta, before the dreaded back-to-back-to-back (in Toronto, New Jersey and Charlotte) that is part of a lightning-fast four-game road trip.
In a season of no excuses, Rivers made it clear Thursday he doesn't want to hear any more. Instead of making it difficult on themselves, he wants his Celtics to take the next step in their progress and start making things difficult on everyone else for a change.
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