Stop me if you've heard this one before — the Celtics, playing on the road on the second night of a back-to-back, ran out of energy in the fourth quarter against a team they were really supposed to beat.
Yeah, that sounds vaguely familiar, doesn't it?
The C's lost another one of "those" games on Monday night, 88-79 to the New Jersey Nets at the Prudential Center. They owned the first quarter with a suffocating defensive effort, taking a 23-14 lead, they led for most of the second, and they held their ground in the third. But as the minutes wore on, the C's ran out of steam, and a nail-biting game turned into a double-digit deficit late.
The Celtics didn't work hard enough to win this one.
"I was disappointed in our execution, and our focus too," coach Doc Rivers said. "We're just not playing well right now, number one. And you go through that sometimes — sometimes you have to wait for your team. Right now, I'm waiting for them to kick back into gear."
It was a disappointing loss, but not an altogether unpredictable one. If you've been watching the Celtics this season, you know how they perform without proper rest. They've now lost five consecutive games on the second night of back-to-backs — they came up short Jan. 8 in Chicago, Jan. 22 in Washington, Jan. 28 in Phoenix and Feb. 7 in Charlotte. Next it's Newark.
The back-to-backs are killing the Celtics, but the C's are trying not to worry about it much.
"It doesn't bother me," Rivers said. "Unless they're going to start having back-to-backs in the playoffs, I'm not that concerned by it.
"It bothers me, though, that we're not mentally tougher, because to me, all back-to-backs are is a mental toughness thing. And we've struggled all year. If we could take the back-to-backs out, we'd have the best record in the NBA. But we can't."
Rivers' fuzzy math was intended as hyperbole, but it nearly checks out. The Celtics are 6-8 now on the second night of back-to-backs, after starting the season 6-3. That's a winning percentage of .429 in those games, versus 41-10 (.804) when they've got more rest. Give the C's an extra day off, and they're basically the Spurs.
But when they're not rested, the C's have a lot of characteristically lazy mistakes in their repertoire. They fail to move the ball and establish the post, settling far too often for jump shots. They foul too much rather than playing clean, fundamentally sound defense. And perhaps most glaringly, as the Nets exposed on Monday night, they don't close out on shooters. New Jersey finished the night 11-of-25 from 3-point range, including four treys from Deron Williams and three from Anthony Morrow. Suffice it to say the Nets don't shoot that well every night.
"It means we weren't closing out," Rivers said. "We were not. Four or five of their 3's we were there, but we didn't really get into their airspace. We pride ourselves in taking away 3-point shots, but we gave up big ones tonight. But give them credit — they made some big shots. I thought they were the aggressor in the second half."
No kidding. Of course they were. Without a good day's rest going in, the Celtics don't know the meaning of the word "aggression."
The back-to-backs have been a nagging problem all year. There's only one silver lining:
"You don't have those in the playoffs," Rivers repeated. "You have rest, and so that's a good thing. But they're still losses, and we're losing ground by losing games."
Losing ground is scary at this point — the C's don't have any to spare. Monday's loss drops them to 47-18, tied with the Bulls for first place in the East.
The Celtics have to snap out of this funk. They need a good talking-to — perhaps even two of them in a row.