Celtics say problems are in their heads

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Asked after Saturday's loss to the lowly New Jersey Nets if the shocking result would be a wake-up call, Boston Celtics center Kendrick Perkins wondered aloud how many wake-up calls his team needed.

To be sure, Boston has looked like a team constantly slamming the snooze button this season. For a group with championship aspirations, absolutely nothing has come easy this winter.

If Saturday's loss to the Nets was the wake-up call, it wasn't immediately evident. The Celtics took Sunday off before returning to work Monday and seemed no more panicked about their situation.

While Celtics players and coaches expressed extreme disappointment in the way the team has played in its last six quarters -- falling to New Jersey and crumbling in the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers before that -- there was no obvious sense of renewed urgency Monday inside the gym at the Sports Authority Training Center at HealthPoint.

But the adage suggests that sometimes a team has to reach rock bottom before it can truly climb. And coach Doc Rivers is confident Saturday's loss might have been just the jolt his team needed.

"We're not used to it happening here, but we're not going to overreact to it," Rivers said of losing to a bottom-tier opponent. "We need work on it. We need to see it. Sometimes you can see it on film, sometimes you can see it on the floor. Sometimes you've got to get your butt whupped a couple times before you realize the problem. I'm hoping all those are going to help us."

Celtics captain Paul Pierce returned to practice Monday after missing three games because of a strained right thumb suffered in Boston's road win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 18 -- one of the team's few quality wins this season (even if L.A. didn't have Kobe Bryant).

Pierce stressed that injuries and a lack of focus don't excuse a loss like Saturday's to the Nets, who won just their sixth game of the season.

"I still feel like we should win those games," said Pierce. "This isn't three or four years ago, when I felt we had no chance of winning. We should win when Kevin [Garnett] sits out, we should win when I sit out, or if Ray [Allen] happens to sit out. These last couple games, we should have won. There's no excuses."

The Celtics struggle to explain the reason(s) for their struggles, but much of the talk Monday centered around buzzwords like "focus," "concentration," and everyone's favorite, "execution."

All of which suggests the team thinks the problem is more mental than physical. Rivers said as much after Saturday's loss, stressing to his team that the trouble is between the players' ears.

Said Pierce: "We need 48 minutes of concentration, 48 minutes of playing through the game. We've been running through the race, but we've got to finish the race. That's what it's all about."

So how was Monday's practice in terms of focus? "We were pretty upbeat," said Pierce. "It was a good practice."

At times the Celtics sound delusional, suggesting that they will undoubtedly put it together for the postseason -- even when they haven't shown that potential most of the regular season, particularly against the teams they'll see in the postseason (2-8 versus the Magic, Hawks and Cavaliers, including 0-5 at home).

What's more, the Celtics use the standings as a bit of a crutch. Boston is one win behind Atlanta for the third seed in the East, thanks in large part to the struggles of the Hawks.

Yet even as the calendar flipped to March, the Celtics still didn't seem ready to flip the panic switch. Rivers noted the Celtics have 25 games left to get this right. Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace have promised the Green will get it right because they have no other option.

But until they show it on the court, they know it's hard for anyone to believe them. And, standing at rock bottom, Rivers suggested that nothing great comes easy.

"I'd love it to be easy, but to do something special, it'll never be easy," said Rivers. "You have to get your hands dirty. Dive into it and see what comes out. It's a good challenge, it really is."

So how do the Celtics turn it around?

"I don't know the answer, but I know we're going to keep working," said Rivers. "The bottom line is we have to become a better team. Do it together. We have to execute together. And I keep using that word. To me, that's focus, or whatever it is, we have to do it better."

Tuesday night's game in Detroit should tell us if the Celtics plan to snooze through the latest wake-up call. If reaching rock bottom doesn't force a team to focus, what will?

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.