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MIAMI -- If the first two games of the 2011-12 season have taught the Boston Celtics anything, it's this: It's hard to dig out of an early hole.
There's no shame in losing the first two games of the season considering the circumstances (playing a new-look New York Knicks team in the Big Apple on Christmas Day, then facing the defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat on their South Beach turf). There's little reason to panic just yet.
After absorbing a 115-107 loss to the Heat on Tuesday night at American Airlines Arena, the Celtics rallied around the notion that they've been their biggest enemy at the start of the new season, particularly by being sluggish out of the gates.
The Celtics have seen firsthand that sometimes it doesn't matter how strong you finish, if the hole is too big to overcome, you won't win in the end. They don't want these two games to be a microcosm of their season.
Deep breath. There's 64 games ahead for Boston, more than enough time to turn this thing around. Two losses by season's end could be little more than a blip on the radar.
But it's clear that every win will be important to this team as it appears little will come easy. And the Celtics can't let winnable games slip away.
Championship teams, which Boston aspires to be, find ways to win these games.
"I told our guys, I said we're making steps, you can see it," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "But we can't ease into games. We just can't. We have to come out [fast]. It's like we get down, we get upset at it, then we fight back. That's how you get down. It's two games, so it'll get better."
Panic buttons were ready to be slammed across New England after the Celtics allowed the Heat to shoot nearly 70 percent through the early stages of the second half, as Miami built a 20-point cushion. A lopsided loss, on the heels of Sunday's loss in New York, would have been enough for skeptics to overreact and start plotting the Celtics' return to the draft lottery.
|Rajon Rondo, who had another big game with 22 points, 12 assists and 8 rebounds, says the Celtics need to learn from their mistakes.|
Instead, Boston showed some familiar resolve and battled to make it a one-possession game on two occasions in the final two minutes.
"We've got a little bit of a pattern as far as digging holes, so we've got to do a better job of getting off to better starts," point guard Rajon Rondo said. "Whether it's offensively or defensively, we've got to find a way to get stops early in the game and not dig such a hole and have to fight back."
The same could be said for the standings. The Celtics find themselves in the basement of the Atlantic Division. They are the only 0-2 team in the Eastern Conference. Again, the small sample size limits the need to worry, but it simply can't become a trend.
"We've got to find a way to correct our mistakes and learn from them," Rondo said. "Two tough losses, but they are losses, and we have to do a better job of finding a way to get wins."
It starts Wednesday night in New Orleans to conclude the first of 19 back-to-backs this season (not including a back-to-back-to-back in April). For a Celtics team that was a mere 8-11 on the second night of back-to-backs last season, including just 3-11 on the road, that's a daunting proposition.
But the Celtics are taking a positive approach. A chance to play Wednesday is an opportunity to put these two losses behind them.
"I think we're more excited about playing and trying to win," Jermaine O'Neal said. "The first thing we talked about when we got [in the locker room Tuesday] was, 'Well, we're going to see where we're at now.' [Starting] 0-2 is definitely not where we want to be, but we feel like we're close."
Rivers sees it, too. He could have easily lamented the fact that the Celtics turned the ball over a whopping 24 times Tuesday (leading to 33 points for ball-hawking Miami, with Rivers comparing LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to Deion Sanders). That included 15 first-half turnovers for 23 points to help the Heat build their big cushion.
Or he could have focused on the foul differential and what he clearly believed was one-sided whistles (enough so that both he and Rondo got T'd up and Rivers spent most of the night glaring at official Olandis Poole).
But Rivers' motto this season has been "No excuses." It's part of the reason he won't let his team feel sorry for itself while playing without Jeff Green and Paul Pierce (and losing Chris Wilcox to a bruised shoulder on Tuesday night).
Rivers stressed to his players that they can't wait for Pierce to get healthy. Otherwise it might be too late. Pierce will undoubtedly help, but this team needs to win games regardless of who's on the floor.
"I just like our group, I like the guys," Rivers said. "We need that extra shooter on the floor. You can see that in the times when we don't -- when we're big, that is where you miss Paul. He's huge for us. I think when he gets back and [Mickael] Pietrus comes, we're going to be OK, but we've got to win now.
"That's what I told them. We can't wait for Paul, we can't wait for anybody. We need to win now."
After all, the Celtics don't want to look back and lament how a slow start detoured them from accomplishing their ultimate goal.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.