This one made them angry. You could see it in their eyes, in their body language, in the way they stormed off the floor in Utah on Monday night. Every loss stings, but this one was something else entirely.
The Celtics had a 54-49 lead at halftime, and they watched it vanish into the ether in the third quarter as the Utah Jazz came out re-energized, hit their shots when it mattered and kept one foot on the Celtics' throats down the stretch.
The C's had a shot at their fifth consecutive win on Monday night. A win in Salt Lake City would have been the culmination of a perfect road trip, a three-game sweep of potential Western Conference playoff contenders. And when they took the floor to start the third quarter, they were 24 minutes away from making it a reality.
When it didn't happen, you could tell the Celtics were frustrated. It was most evident with 1:11 remaining in the fourth quarter, when Doc Rivers loudly protested the non-call of a traveling violation on a meaningless play in garbage time. Doc complained. He needled the officials, and he wouldn't let it go. First, it got him a technical foul. Then he sarcastically applauded the official who T'd him up. Then he got slapped with technical No. 2. Just like that, he was gone.
Doc didn't get himself tossed because he was arguing a pivotal call in crunch time. His team was long dead at that point, the final nails hammered in their coffin by 3's from Mehmet Okur and C.J. Miles. The C's were down 13 with just over a minute to go. The fat lady was done singing.
Doc got thrown out because he was frustrated. He couldn't bear to stand on that sideline anymore, watching his team get run out of the building. So he left.
You could tell that his players shared his frustration. They let him know it one by one as he walked off the floor, headed for the visitors' locker room at EnergySolutions Arena. There was a fist bump from Rajon Rondo, a subtle high five from Kevin Garnett, an emphatic slap on the back from Kendrick Perkins.
The Celtics' starters had been sitting there on that bench, drenched in the sweat of a failed fourth-quarter comeback, stewing in the guilt of blowing a game they easily could have won. And it got to them.
Every good coach is a spokesman for his team, and Doc made a statement on behalf of the Celtics. He was angry, and he wanted out of there.
This was a big game for the Celtics' season. Win it, and you come home on a five-game winning streak, ready to let the rest of the NBA know you mean business. Lose, and you're once again answering those same questions about whether you've got what it takes to handle a real playoff contender.
Doc himself downplayed that.
"No, we just lost the game," the coach told the media after Monday night's debacle. "We're not going to overdo this. We'll let you guys analyze this and figure out why we lost. They outplayed us. They made shots, moved the ball, attacked us. They were the better team tonight."
But isn't it more than that?
Every team loses games, and no one likes it. The Celtics have had to deal with 25 of them this season. But this one seemed worse than just your usual "L." It seemed like the Celtics were discouraged and angry that they couldn't finish the job in Utah.
Mediocre teams take losses like this and self-destruct. Good teams use them as inspiration to work harder, play better and come back better than ever. Which direction the Celtics go is up to Doc Rivers to decide.
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