C's Still Trying to Get It Together

December 31, 2004

As far as predictions go, the one Gary Payton made on the Celtics' recent road trip was far from bold. "In 40 to 45 games we'll get it together." That means a month from now Boston should be a measurably improved team, a cohesive unit cured of the inconsistencies that too often lead to losses.

Considering the signs of individual progress, Payton seems to have set a reasonable expectation. Raef LaFrentz has never looked better since right knee surgery. Al Jefferson has opened eyes and exceeded expectations. Walter McCarty has rediscovered his role as a veteran source of energy with his 3-pointers and defensive know-how. Kendrick Perkins has shown he can produce.

   But while rebuilding may be about the individual, winning basketball requires chemistry.

"If it was an individual sport, then you could look at it like [individual good play is good for the team]," said Paul Pierce. "It doesn't really matter who plays well. You have to do it as a team. If it was boxing, then maybe it'd be a different story. A heavyweight guy, Raef is coming along, Al Jefferson is coming along. But we have to do it as a team in a system to where it can work to produce wins. Regardless of the talent in here, it doesn't matter. You have to be able to put it together to get wins."

The Celtics have the talent to be a playoff team in the East. Opposing scouts recognize that right away. And with the notable exception of Delonte West, the Celtics have been injury-free through the toughest part of their schedule. Boston activated Tom Gugliotta yesterday and placed seldom-used rookie Justin Reed on the injured list with right knee tendinitis.

Although healthy, the Celtics rarely "put it together."

When asked if the 0-3 road trip represented growing pains for the Celtics, LaFrentz said, "You'd like to think so. I don't think this team has any major, major problems. It's just buckling down when you need to buckle down. We're failing to do that time and time again.

"It's encouraging to play well [individually], but you really don't feel good about it until you play well and win. We're still waiting for that to happen."

When asked about the Celtics' recent struggles, coach Doc Rivers does not hesitate in pointing to poor defense. Boston allowed San Antonio, Dallas, and Memphis to shoot a combined 51 percent (122 for 238) from the floor on the trip. With the Green averaging almost 98 points per game and shooting 47 percent (109 for 230) in their last three December road games, even slightly better defense could have made a huge difference.

But problems were apparent long before the Celtics' latest trip. Rivers has not been satisfied with the defense "for the last three weeks." Although Rivers took the blame in the aftermath of the Dallas debacle because he switched Boston's pick-and-roll coverage, one of the main culprits has been a lack of practice time.

With 16 games (10 on the road) packed into 31 days during December, practice time has been at a premium for the Celtics. Rivers does not hold workouts the day after back-to-back games, so the Celtics had yesterday off before facing Washington this afternoon (3 o'clock, FSN).

"[A lack of practice time] hurts this team," said Rivers. "It really does because we're so young and we're new. No practice hurts us, but having no legs would hurt us more."

Rivers is glad the Celtics' most demanding stretch of games ended Wednesday in Memphis. His expectations differ slightly from the one Payton voiced.

"Before the season, I wanted to be around .500 once we finished December and we are," said Rivers, whose team is 12-16. "But honestly, I think we should be about three wins better. In my opinion, we're a little behind."

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