Celtics coach Doc Rivers dubbed his team's current stretch of games "The Gauntlet," a testament to the difficulty surrounding trips to Orlando and Atlanta and a home game against the champion Los Angeles Lakers.
After the way his team choked away the front end of the trying trio, Rivers offered up a whole new host of terms not normally used to define a title contender.
In roughly three minutes with reporters, Rivers said his team "deserved" a 96-94 loss to Orlando in a game Boston led by 16 in the second half. He said the players "lost focus," told them their early lead was "a joke" and felt that the "basketball gods punished us" for playing so poorly.
One might think that what is arguably the Celtics' most difficult loss of the season needs to be forgotten quickly, what with a game in Atlanta scheduled just 20 hours later. But Rivers wants the sting of the latest collapse to stick around for a bit.
"We should've been in control but I never felt that we were because of the way we were playing," he said. "You could just see it. Hopefully it's a lesson for us."
Boston led by 11 points at halftime, the advantage Rivers called "a joke," saying his club should have been up 25. The lead stretched to 16 early in the third and remained 14 when Eddie House drilled a 3-pointer with 11:38 left in the game.
A 9-0 Orlando run tightened things up and nine straight Magic points by Dwight Howard trimmed it to 81-79 midway through the fourth. By then, it seems, Rivers knew his team had lost its mental edge.
He received confirmation of that in the last minute when, after Rajon Rondo scored to give the Celtics a 94-91 lead, his players somehow left J.J. Redick, the Magic's best long-range shooter, open for a game-tying 3-pointer.
Redick buried it. After a rushed Ray Allen miss on the other end and a Rashard Lewis layup on a broken play with 1.5 seconds left, the C's ninth loss in 15 games was all but sealed.
"The [Redick] 3, the one thing we said out of the timeout is we don't care if they get a dunk," Rivers said. "One thing we don't want to do is give up a wide-open 3. Don't back off [the shooter].
"We stopped the first option and there really wasn't a second option. J.J. Redick, we backed off him. I don't know that you should back off J.J. Redick. He's a pretty good shooter."
Boston got a look on the last possession when Rasheed Wallace took a potential game-winner, but it was an air ball.
To Rivers, it only made sense for the shot to be off.
"I don't want to be a lucky team," Rivers said. "I want to be a good team."
If the rest of "The Gauntlet" goes like the second half of this one, one has to wonder just how good his Celtics can be.
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