What Up with the 4th Quarter Collapses?


Judging from the current Atlantic Division standings, where a .500 record appears a lofty goal, there will always be time to make a playoff push. It will never be too late for teams rebuilding under new coaches to hope for a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference. But right now, the question is this: When does it stop being too early to draw conclusions about a team? In the Celtics' case, when does a shaky start filled with fourth-quarter collapses and mental fragility become a disturbing trend?

These are probably not the questions coach Doc Rivers asked himself yesterday as the Celtics enjoyed a break from practice. Like the players, Rivers was probably glad to put embarrassing losses to Indiana and Philadelphia behind him and take a brief respite from basketball. It remains too early to panic, too early to worry that the 4-6 Celtics, with obvious athleticism and talent, won't come together this season.

   "It's a long season," said Rivers. "I don't worry about [the team coming together] at all. I believe it will. If it doesn't, it doesn't. I don't know when. This is going to take some time. I told you guys that [during training camp] in Vermont. I've told you guys that when we started off and our record was 3-2. Everyone was happy, and I was saying, 'We're not even close to where we need to be.' This is going to take time."

What's a few more months or a year when you have a pair of players (Kendrick Perkins and Al Jefferson) who were toddlers when the Celtics last won a championship? Clearly, the Celtics are in the development phase.

But that does not excuse the absence of mental toughness that often results in late-game collapses and makes double-digit leads meaningless. (The Celtics squandered an 18-point second-half lead in the season opener against the 76ers and allowed the Pacers to score 32 points in the fourth quarter in Game 2.) Nor does the "it's early" line entirely explain the inconsistent application of a team ethic and poor effort on the glass in some games. (Without Jermaine O'Neal, Indiana still out rebounded Boston, 45-33, Tuesday.   It may be early, but the trends are disturbing. Boston reverts too easily to bad habits.

On the positive side of the ledger, the Celtics have athleticism and talent. They have pieces that fit the type of style executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge wants to play. Jefferson has All-Star potential, and rookie Tony Allen (16 points against Philadelphia Wednesday) appears to be making significant strides. When they put their minds to it, the Celtics really can play with anybody in the league. Before falling to Indiana and Philadelphia, Boston defeated Seattle.

Asked what it would take for the team to play as a more cohesive unit with more consistency, Paul Pierce said, "Time. That's pretty much all you can say. You can only do so many drills, work on so many things. It's just something that has to come when everybody looks at themselves in the mirror and makes a decision to do what they can to help the team."

The Celtics also may need a spark to get them focused in the first quarter and keep their attention through the fourth. Cleveland, tonight's opponent, may provide just the right motivation. The Cavaliers arrive at the FleetCenter playing some of the best ball in the league, and LeBron James coming off a career-high 43 points Wednesday. And after the second exhibition game between the teams, the Celtics and Cavaliers got into a heated argument. Rivers plans to mention the lingering hostility, but he won't harp on it.

"I'm sure we remember," said Rivers. "And I'm sure they remember that."

Now, if only the Celtics could remember the right way to play, then the early part of the season might pay dividends later.

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