The Celtics could look at their first loss of the season as an aberration of sorts. The Suns were a good team catching the bedraggled Bostonians near the end of a brutal opening stretch of eight games in 12 fun-filled nights. As much as they didn't like that 110-103 defeat, they could understand it.
But what happened last night was different. The Celtics were rested and ready. And beaten.
The Hawks weren't frightened at all by this new Celtics roster that may - or may not - be better than the championship squad of two seasons past. Atlanta won the game, 97-86, on the scoreboard. It was 47-29 on the boards and a unanimous decision on the judges' cards. Doc Rivers rightfully pointed out that the rebounding shortfall wasn't entirely the fault of the taller Celts, noting that the perimeter defenders allowed too much penetration, which took helping teammates out of position.
But, really, doesn't it all come down to toughness? There's the physical toughness of getting a body on someone and the mental toughness of staying with your plan and making the right passes and rotations.
``I just thought they played with an amazing amount of speed, power, passion and execution,'' Rivers said. ``I thought they were better prepared. I thought they were better focused.''
The Celtics are a tough club with veteran wisdom - except when they don't use those qualities. Last night they had no reason to let the Hawks choose the music. They knew what was coming and didn't deal with it.
This was not one of those ``schedule losses'' that are so much a part of the NBA tour. This was a real loss.
Rivers said afterward it was no different from a week prior.
``They kicked our butt, honestly,'' he said of the Hawks. ``I think they were better tonight. I think all losses to me feel the same, whether you're tired or not. We were fresh and well practiced. They just beat us.
``So did Phoenix. I didn't make any excuse. They beat us. We've lost two games. We didn't lose them because of any sinister reasons. Phoenix beat us and Atlanta beat us, and they beat us with their play. They came in with a game plan. They ran it to perfection. We came in with a game plan and we didn't do it very well. In both games really.''
True enough, except for the fact Rivers did bring the schedule into the discussion after the loss to the Suns. He was asked a question about Paul Pierce's assessment that the Celts were a step slow that night. He agreed and added, ``But we've got one more in this stretch of eight (games in) 12. You know, eight games in 12 days to start the season is brutal. But everybody's going to go through this stretch at some point; we just happen to go through it early. And we knew when we looked at the schedule that this is going to be a tough stretch of games, and let's see how many games we can squeeze out and win.''
It is, of course, far too early to make definitive statements about the Celtics' postseason prospects. And they won't find any solace in a certain comparative result. (The Hawks trailed the Lakers by 22 after three quarters on Nov. 1 before a garbage time rush made it cosmetically more palatable - 118-110.)
What's clear is what Rivers has been preaching all along: The Celtics have to get better. More specifically, Pierce fingered the first five.
``To tell you the truth,'' said the Truth, ``being in the starting lineup, I just think we have to get off to better starts. I think we're setting a trend of really not getting off to good starts. There's been about four or five games where we've been down in the first quarter. That's up to the starters to come out and set the tone.
``After three days of practice and rest, you know, we've got to do a better job of coming out to start ballgames.''
Or they will face more endings like this.
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