BOSTON — If Paul George were just a little less of a player, if the Indiana Pacers were just a little less formidable defensively, the Boston Celtics could have started this week with the confident feeling that comes with winning two straight games.
George really is that good, though, and the Pacers’ defense is that stingy. So after a dispiriting loss Saturday that hinged on a clutch 3-pointer by George, the Celtics didn’t sound happy just to compete.
“It doesn’t say ‘half-L’ or ‘half-win.’ It’s just a loss,” forward Kris Humphries said. “Losing is not good. Yeah, we competed, but we lost. We’re trying to win.”
The Celtics’ record now is 20-40, with injured forward Gerald Wallace acknowledging before the game what everyone already knows: “It’s not like we’re in a playoff race.” The notion that the Celtics stayed “too good” by failing to move Brandon Bass or Humphries at the trade deadline now looks to have been laughably optimistic, as the team has lost four of five games since Feb. 20.
Since he was hired last summer, coach Brad Stevens has stressed his adherence to the process of rebuilding. He’s stayed eternally positive even as the losses have piled up, which might explain his ejection by referee Marc Davis in Sacramento. Perhaps Davis was just shocked to hear Stevens say anything other than, “Attaboy, blue!”
Beneath that friendly exterior, however, lies a competitor who led mid-major Butler to consecutive NCAA championship games. He’s not the type who embraces defeats easily.
“I’m excited, because we’re getting better,” Stevens said after the loss to Indiana. “But it’s rough, because I want to win that game.”
It’s tough to see through their 7-22 record since Jan. 1, but as Stevens mentioned, the Celtics have improved. The Pacers provide a decent litmus test. They trounced the Celtics by 15 points in their first meeting back in November, then laid a 27-point beatdown on the Celts in December. Even if Stevens and Humphries refuse to take solace in a five-point defeat, they would agree it’s preferable to watching an opponent run away before halftime.
On a larger scale, the Celtics have made strides in several areas. Jared Sullinger getting into shape and Humphries getting more playing time have helped on the glass, where Boston was helpless early in the season. The Celtics actually outrebounded their opponents on a per-game basis in December, January and February. They had a positive turnover differential in February, their first such month all season.
Of course, only six teams are worse than the Celtics in point differential, which is the statistic that matters most. The Celtics visit the Pacers again next week, at which point we’ll find out if Saturday’s tight contest really signified improvement or if it was just a blip for the dominant Pacers, who were without point guard George Hill. Humphries and the Celtics might not enjoy half-L’s, but those sure beat the other kind.