Can the C's Turn it Around?

March 3, 200

WALTHAM - The losing streak is at four. The last time the Celtics were in such straits, the season was barely three weeks gone and coach Jim O'Brien gave his players a number to think about.

The number was 71. That was how many games were left to play and the Celtics, at 5-6, had four road games on tap. The message was clear: You have that long to decide what kind of team you're going to be. The Celtics went out and won the next six games, and have not looked back.

   The number now is 24. That's how many games remain as the Celtics try to right their listing ship. Once again, the road beckons, but only for one game (tomorrow night against Philadelphia). The Celtics are still in comparatively cushy playoff position (No. 4 in the East) but only three losses separate them from another unwanted trip to Secaucus.

They've lost two straight at home since coming back from their 3-4 Western swing. In O'Brien's mind, they've played reasonably well in two of the losses (Dallas, Milwaukee) and pretty horribly in the other two (Houston, Charlotte). The Hornets blew out Boston at the FleetCenter Friday night, winning so convincingly that they had only three baskets in the final quarter - and one of those was at the buzzer.

It's gut-check time.

After a painful overtime defeat in Washington Nov. 24, the Celtics next faced Miami. They won that game on a driving layup by Paul Pierce at the buzzer. They followed that up with road wins at Orlando and New Jersey, the latter featuring Pierce's Bird-like 48-point eruption. They then won again at Toronto and came home and beat the Nuggets and Suns.

"At that point in time," O'Brien said, referring to the moments after the Wizards loss, "everyone was wondering when the heck we'd win again and everyone responded magnificently."

That is what O'Brien is looking for now. But it's March, not November, and teams now are wearing their playoff faces. The Sixers spanked the Nets Friday night and Allen Iverson already is saying his team is the one to beat. Plus, the Celtics have lost eight straight to Philly and five straight down there. Orlando, coming in on Wednesday, has tied the Celtics for fourth place and is on a killer road trip. Friday's foe is the Pistons, who are in first place in the Central Division.

"You always wonder, no matter what the circumstances, how you are going to respond," O'Brien said. "Even in winning streaks. When you lose a couple games, you see how you deal with adversity. I've been generally pleased at how our guys have responded to down times."

Yesterday's practice was defensive in tone from beginning to end. O'Brien said he saw breakdowns on defense Friday night that he had not seen since October. He is worried about the inconsistent play of late. He's trying to integrate Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk into the mix. They will go the next month with precious little practice time; they play at least every other day until a two-day respite April 3-4.

"Tony and Rodney are talented individuals and need to be on the court," O'Brien said. "But Rodney happens to play Antoine [Walker's] best position [power forward]. It's easier to take someone who's been with you and move him around. We'll make decisions and go with them."

Or, as Kenny Anderson said after the Hornets game, "You don't have to be a brain surgeon. They have to know the plays. It's going to take time."

. . .

Pierce and Walker stayed late after practice to shoot some footage for ESPN. The two are doing Chris Berman's "Plays of the Week" tonight on "SportsCenter." Last week, the Yankees' Jason Giambi had the honors. Pierce and Walker were trying ridiculous court-length shots as well as holding hockey sticks and golf clubs. They appeared to be enjoying themselves . . . O'Brien said Delk will return to the starting lineup against the 76ers. Eric Williams started in Delk's spot against the taller Hornets, but the first half went so poorly that Delk was back in the starting unit for the second half . . . The Celtics' 31-27 record marks the closest they've been to .500 since Dec. 8, when a loss to the Bulls ended their six-game winning streak and dropped them to 11-7. They then won three straight and six of seven to hit 17-8. They have never been more than nine games over .500 this season . . . The Hornets were the fourth team this season to register a wire-to-wire whuppin' of the Celtics. Three of those four have been in Boston: by the Hornets, the Heat, and the 76ers. The Celtics also lost wire-to-wire to Atlanta on the road. Boston has had three wire-to-wire wins, at Toronto and at home against Cleveland and Detroit.

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