WALTHAM - With their three-game winning streak and brief journey to the land of over .500 finished after losses to New Jersey and Cleveland, the 6-7 Celtics return to the FleetCenter tonight for a date with Denver and with a not-so-surprising request from their coach.
"We've got to get our defense down," Rick Pitino said after yesterday's film session and workout at Brandeis University. "Our players don't understand this, well, maybe they do understand this. They feel we don't have any shot blocking and nobody's going to cover [ down low] for us and that's a problem we have."
But, said Pitino, it's a problem that's not going to go away. As a result, his team will have to adjust physically and mentally to get out of their funk that began with a last-second loss to the Nets on a Keith Van Horn shot that bounced high off the rim and fell through to give New Jersey a 99-97 victory and continued with a 116-99 blowout against a Cleveland team that had been struggling offensively.
"We have to execute because we don't have any big men who are going to help you out," said Pitino. "If you get beat off the dribble and you don't rotate perfectly, no one's going to be there and that's what's frustrating them."
But Pitino isn't quite as frustrated as his players. "That's the building process," he said.
The Celtics will have at least one advantage against the Nuggets. Denver played last night in Miami, while the Celtics were getting a little home cooking so Boston will be more rested, a similar scenario to a week ago when the Knicks came to town after playing the night before and were worn down by the Celtics' press in the third quarter.
Another factor is that the Nuggets have lost 6-foot-11-inch center/ forward Raef LaFrentz, their rookie from Kansas, for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Before he went down, LaFrentz led all rookies in rebounding (8.1 per game) and was third in rookie scoring (14.9 ppg).
Nevertheless, said Pitino, the Celtics had better be ready for a team that loves to shoot 3-pointers, can get to the free throw line with its inside play, and has the league's reigning player of the week in forward Antonio McDyess, who threw a career-high 46 points in the faces of the Vancouver Grizzlies Sunday.
"They can shoot the 3-pointers from five spots," said Pitino, running down the Denver roster. "And three of their five guys shoot the 3-pointer 50 percent of the time and they also go to the line 30 times a game and shoot 78 percent. So they're either shooting the 3 or going to the post and getting fouled or driving. That's a pretty good philosophy."
To offset that, the Celtics will have to help each other out even more defensively, especially with the absence of an intimidating big man in the middle. But even if they execute the rotating defense, said Pitino, there's a danger.
"The more you rotate, the more foul trouble you get into and the reason we have to rotate so much is that we don't have great interior defense. That's our Achilles' heel. But while we're building, that's what we have to do, so we're working at making sure that we don't get hurt too much on the perimeter while we're in rotations."
Pitino, his staff, and the players, who had a day off Wednesday, had a chance to reflect on what went wrong the past couple of games with a videotape session prior to yesterday's workout.
"I take any loss hard," said Pitino, "but I didn't take the Cleveland loss real hard because we didn't deserve to win. But when you break down mentally like we did in the New Jersey game, that's much harder to take."