They were at the Bradley Center last night to meet the explosive Bucks. Despite a 105-96 loss, they had coach Rick Pitino complimenting them on their passing and shooting. So if passing and shooting were problems in previous games, what was there to complain about last night?
"Free throws," Pitino said.
That's a start. In a rare example of NBA democracy, the Celtics and Bucks both were given 27 free throw attempts. The Bucks made 22 of theirs, the Celtics 15. If you wanted to use the Perfect World Deduction method, you could say that had the Celtics made all their free throws, they would have won.
But that would ignore another problem.
"Glenn Robinson was on fire," Bucks coach Chris Ford said.
Added point guard Terrell Brandon, "After a while, I was just telling the guys, 'Give it to him and just get out of the way.' "
That's because the man known as Big Dog had 14 points in the third quarter, including 12 in a six-minute stretch. That helped cut an 11-point Boston advantage to 1 (71-70) at the end of the quarter. At the beginning of the fourth, the Celtics literally fumbled the ball away as they had seven turnovers on their first 12 possessions. Pitino yelled himself red in the face for most of the fourth quarter, but said afterward that he was pleased with his 1-5 team's effort.
"I like the way we played tonight more than any other game we played so far," he said.
The Celtics looked their best in the third. They were screening, easily finding open shots. Antoine Walker (21 points, 12 rebounds) had 8 points in the quarter and things got so ridiculous that 5-foot-10-inch Tyus Edney (11 points, 10 assists) had a tip-in among the giants for a 67-60 lead with 3:37 remaining in the quarter.
And then . . . well, put it this way: You're not going to beat the Bucks if you refuse to get in the face of Robinson. He earned his nickname because he is an offensive force. When he made an 11-footer with six minutes left, his team trailed by 7. His final hoop of the quarter, with 2.5 seconds remaining, made it 71-70.
That's when Lesson 2 began to become a factor. The Celtics simply fell apart. Pitino tried to stop a Bucks run early in the fourth by calling a timeout. But Chauncey Billups had the ball stripped from him in the confusion, leading to another Milwaukee hoop. The Bradley Center went crazy. So did the Celtics bench. Pitino and Dee Brown got into a short shouting match (Brown did not return) and Billups received a talking-to from the coach as well.
By that time, the Celtics were in trouble, even if the score indicated they had a chance. They didn't. They fell behind by 12 and whittled the lead to 7 in the final 43.7. But when they were hammered by the Bucks, they bricked the free throws. In the previous four games, they couldn't make their field goals. Last night they shot well from the field (51.9 percent) and horribly from the line. They think this is a temporary condition.
"We are starting to come together as a team," Walter McCarty said. "As long as we stay together, things will start to fall for us."
There were moments when the Celtics began to grow up last night. You could see it with the play of Ron Mercer, who missed only two shots and had 17 points. You could see it with the excellent passing in the first half (the Celtics led, 51-44, at halftime), passing so impressively that tough critic Pitino was saying, "Nice pass; way to move" as he shouted instructions. But it was another loss, although the Celtics took another step toward growing up.