WALTHAM - Their five-game Western road trip is over, but the Celtics will play their seventh straight game against a Western Conference opponent tonight as the Utah Jazz visit the FleetCenter, while hoping to reverse an early-season trend of losing more tight games than they win.
Of the Celtics' 12 losses, only three have been by 10 or more points, while eight have been by 6 or fewer points, including three by 2 points and Wednesday's 100-99 "welcome home" job by Denver.
"I told the guys that [Denver] got 29 points on uncontested shots," said coach Doc Rivers after yesterday's practice. "We lost the game because of our defense. Offensively, we were horrible and we scored 99 points. But horrible because we never had any consistency in running our stuff."
Rivers said the Celtics seem to lack a sense of urgency defensively, particularly in the first three quarters.
"We did it at the end of the game, but now we put so much pressure on us on both ends that we have to play perfect," he said. "And we're just too new and too young to be a perfect basketball team. We don't need to get into those situations. But I said before the game this was going to be maybe the most difficult game of the year for us because of the travel we had, traveling all night and getting in at 9:30 [Tuesday morning]."
Rivers said his players were still tired yesterday and that while he didn't expect them to play a great game against Denver, it was a disappointment to have a 1-point lead with 10 seconds to play and fail to come up with a defensive stop on Carmelo Anthony, whose long jumper did in the Celtics.
"We predicted the play right, we just didn't cover it right," said Rivers.
The Nuggets had three double-digit rebounders, but Rivers said that statistic didn't bother him as much as the Celtics' transition defense.
"They got a bunch of baskets after our mades or even our misses where they ran out and got layups. They had double-digit rebounds because we shot  percent," he said. "We were missing a lot of shots."
The Celtics missed open shots, layups, and free throws, but Rivers blamed it on fatigue.
"There's nothing you can do about that," he said, "but defense you can do something about, and that's what bothers me."
But the fact the Celtics tend to "stick around," according to their coach, and play a lot of close games, is a good sign.
"Now we'd like to stick around and be a winner. I think we're getting there. We made some progress on the road [two wins after three losses]. The Clipper game [a 134-127 win in double overtime] was a game you shouldn't have won but you won, but [Wednesday] night's game could have gone either way."
Rivers went to his bench in the second quarter against Denver and the reserves struggled.
"I had to stay with them," he said. "In a normal situation, if we hadn't come back from the West Coast trip, I would have subbed, but I had to sit there and take it because there's no way I could put in the guys I just took out. We bought eight or nine minutes but we got down by 10. The good part is in the second half that unit got us the lead. The tough part with young players is that you don't know what you're getting night to night. But that's OK. That's expected."
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Utah's backcourt includes a couple of familiar faces - Howard Eisley, who is in his 11th NBA season out of Boston College, and Raja Bell, who was an up-and-coming star at Boston University for two seasons (1994-96) before transferring to Florida International.
Bell was playing for the Sioux Falls SkyForce of the International Basketball League in April 2001 when he was summoned by the Philadelphia 76ers. He had a solid playoff run and then played 74 games for Philly in 2001-02. He also played in Spain and for the Dallas Mavericks before Utah took a shot with him, and nearly a year ago he hit a 19-foot jumper and layup to erase a 96-95 lead and give the Jazz a 99-96 win at the FleetCenter.
Bell didn't feel he was treated fairly at BU after he was charged with assaulting his girlfriend, a charge that was eventually dropped. But Bell also told the Globe three years ago, "I might not have made the best decisions sometimes. You learn from your mistakes."
"I like him," Rivers said of Bell. "He always seems to end up where the team wins. You know he's gritty. You know he's tough. He makes big shots, but people say he's not a shooter. He makes great stops, but people say he's not that quick. He's a winner. I've always been a little enamored with him because he's a guy you're going to talk about but not spend a lot of time on. But then, at the end of the game, he's going to hurt you. If you give him a chance, he's going to do it."
Ricky Davis feels the Celtics are close to putting things together. "We're doing all right. We just put the team together this year. We've got a few different pieces, [rookies] coming in and stuff. By the All-Star break, we'll definitely start winning those [tight] games," said Davis. "Everyone just has to be on the same page at the end of the game. But you hopefully learn from those mistakes." Davis said he felt tired against Denver, the telltale signs being coming up short on shots and failing to get his legs going full speed until the fourth quarter. "It was a big factor," he said, "plus it was real cold in the building and it was hard to get loose and get warm." . . . The Celtics are 5-4 when they outrebound opponents and one of their best board men lately has been Raef LaFrentz, who had a season-high 15 rebounds against Denver. He has 10-plus rebounds in four of his last seven games.