If Celtics coach Doc Rivers had to pick one mistake out of the "probably 50" he acknowledged making against Atlanta, it would be the lack of playing time allotted to Kendrick Perkins.
Not because Perkins could have single-handedly won the game or proven more skilled than the players on the court for the Celtics' 120-117 loss to Atlanta at Philips Arena Wednesday night. Pure basketball talent is not what brought Perkins to mind. It was attitude and physical play. Perkins makes the most of the time he earns. If there is a loose ball, particularly a rebound, he goes after it with abandon. He might not always execute properly. He might pick up fouls with disturbing frequency. But the desire and consistent work ethic are there. In some circles, Perkins might be considered the antithesis of Mark Blount.
Rivers knows Perkins is not the solution to the Celtics' growing list of problems lack of toughness, inept defense, turnovers, unsettled rotation, and a center more concerned with touches than rebounds. But Perkins represents the "character" player Rivers wants on the floor, at least for more than the 8 minutes 10 seconds the third-year big man played against the Hawks. And Perkins understands. Like his play, he holds nothing back in assessing the current state of the Celtics.
"I think we're too laid-back," said Perkins. "We fight for a couple minutes, then we get too casual. Then, we fight for a couple minutes more. Everybody has got to put everything on the line. When it's game time, it's game time. You've got to come play every night. Some nights some people come to play. Some nights certain people don't come to play. You may have bad shooting nights, but you still have to put forth the effort every night. We don't get that out of most guys every night. It's effort and that's what we've got to get."
Those are big words for somebody averaging 3 rebounds per game in 9.1 minutes. But somebody besides Rivers had to address the team's issues, not dance around them with euphemisms and talk of learning lessons because of youth and inexperience.
After a promising start with an overtime victory against New York in the season opener, a close game with Detroit, a buzzer-beater to defeat Memphis, and a blowout of Houston, Boston is 1-4 in its last five games, the lone win over Atlantic Division bottom-dweller Toronto.
A closer look at the numbers makes the last five Celtics games more disconcerting. The Raptors were the only team the Celtics held below 100 points. During that stretch, Toronto was also the only team to shoot less than 45 percent (all but Cleveland shot better than 50 percent). On average for the season,Celtics' opponents are averaging 102.5 points and shooting 47 percent. The Celtics have committed 17.6 turnovers per game, including averaging 19 in the last two games.
"The better team won [Wednesday night]," said Rivers, who gave the players yesterday off. "I don't have any problem saying that. I don't know if it's effort or toughness. You can fix effort, but I don't know if you can fix toughness. You know what they say, `If you don't bite as a puppy, you won't bite as a dog.' That's about the truth. We've got to do something. We've got to be more physical. We've got to keep working.
"There's going to be tough stretches in the year for everybody; no one's running away with our division. We can do a lot of things better to be a better basketball team."
Far from running away, the Celtics are moving backward. Rivers acknowledged the team struggles with defensive fundamentals, not schemes. The Celtics make sloppy mistakes on offense and exercise poor shot selection at critical moments. Long gone are the days when Paul Pierce kicked out to Ricky Davis for an open winner against Memphis as time expired Nov. 9.
When asked if he was concerned about the Celtics' recent struggles, Pierce said, "Not yet."
He added: "It's just about how bad you really want it. If you hate to lose and losing hurts and these guys really feel it, then they'll do something about it. If not, then we're going to continue to be the team that we are."
A glance around the visitors' locker room after the loss to the Hawks showed who really hurt. Pierce and Rivers were among the last to leave. As they exited, Rivers patted Pierce on the shoulder. In the coming weeks, the Celtics' play will probably determine whether they will compete this season or use their young players more.