DALLAS — The Celtics were in no mood to hear about a Heat hangover as an excuse for never leading in Friday’s 104-94 loss, their second straight road disappointment since letting Miami off the hook Monday night in Boston.
While the Heat pushed their win streak, one that the Celtics fail to view as particularly impressive, to 25 in a row on Friday, Boston took another step in the wrong direction. The Celtics lost for the third consecutive time to the Dallas Mavericks and the fifth time in seven games — a southerly drift that could ultimately lead to a first-round matchup with guess who?
“It’s a tough losing streak right now, three games, but we’re going to try to bounce back,” said Paul Pierce, who had a tough night with 16 points, but just seven through three quarters. “We’ve been through it before. This team is mentally tough and we’ll weather through the storm.”
Boston (36-32) moves on to a tough back-to-back at Memphis Saturday night with just two games separating it from the eighth-place Milwaukee Bucks. The Celtics will hope to have available starting point guard Courtney Lee, who sprained his left ankle late in the fourth quarter. After reaching the bench he was able to apply pressure and walk to the locker room on his own. He’s hopeful any swelling will be limited and that he’ll be ready to play.
No one would be foolhardy enough to count this stubborn, old Celtics team out. But at some point the emotional and physical toll of battling shorthanded night-in and night-out has to come home to roost. In consecutive games, they’ve fallen at New Orleans (the West’s last-place team) on a last-second tip-in, and on Friday they were out-hustled to loose balls and beaten on the boards by the light-rebounding Mavs, a team that’s played better of late but still sits 10th in the West.
“I just think we gave one away the other night in New Orleans, that was self-inflicted, and tonight they took it,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “They won the game. We didn’t play great. We missed a lot of open shots, we missed layups, but overall I’ll take those. I thought we played pretty hard. I wasn’t real happy with our defense and we’re going to have to clean that up.”
Dallas center Brandan Wright, in and out of the rotation all season, although playing more and quite well of late, lit up Boston’s interior defense for a season-high 23 points and a season-high-tying eight rebounds. Shawn Marion, back after missing eight games with a calf strain, had 11 points and 13 rebounds.
“I can’t wait to watch the film. I think we got crushed in the 50-50 game today,” Rivers said, referencing the loose balls that could go to either team, but mostly wind up in the hands of the players with more jump. “Some of those rebounds will count as rebounds, the long ones that were way out to the free throw line, we didn’t get any of those. They got them all. Shawn Marion, I don’t know what his numbers are, but he hurt us with his effort.”
Pierce played 40 minutes Monday against Miami, 33 at New Orleans and another 35 at Dallas. Kevin Garnett (16 points, 12 rebounds) logged 29 minutes in each of the last two games after sitting out two with a thigh injury, but Boston could have used him for 39. Off the bench, Jeff Green had 10 points, giving him 23 in the last two games after hitting Miami for 43. Jason Terry, in his return to Dallas, had little to say after scoring eight points on 3-for-9 shooting.
“All I was worried about was the win,” Terry said. “We have to end this road trip on a good note. Right now we’re just not getting it done.”
Resolve can be a powerful tool to beat back adversity, but eventually the absence of All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo — and even rookie Jared Sullinger to help on the boards — will wear down the older Celtics team. When Lee went down looking like he, too, could become a casualty, it had to be nothing short of disheartening.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve had so many ups and downs and always were able to find a way,” said third-year guard Avery Bradley, who missed the first half of this season recovering from shoulder surgery last May. “Last year we had a lot of issues that people didn’t know about, a lot of injuries and we still were able to find a way, and still had an opportunity. It just shows what kind of organization we have.”
Finding a way this time will be an even tougher dig than a year ago when the Celtics clawed all the way to Game 7 at Miami in the East finals.
Still, nobody’s counting out the Celtics just yet. No, not even the Heat.