Celtics short on time to turn around

CHICAGO -- When Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers tells you his suddenly inconsistent team will get this right, you're inclined to believe him because recent history suggest the Celtics are indeed capable of such a feat. (Just dig out your 2010 playoff tapes for proof.)

But your eyes tend to tell you something different and on the heels of a 97-81 thumping at the hands of the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night at the United Center, there's reason to question whether this team is truly capable of making history repeat.

Rewind to last season when the Celtics rested their ailing stars down the stretch while stumbling to a 27-27 mark over the final 54 games, settling for a fourth seed in the Eastern Conference before flipping that proverbial switch when those stars aligned back on the court in the playoffs.

This season, the Celtics are 8-9 over their past 17 games, and that's with their "big four" on the court for nearly the entirety. Sure the numbers aren't quite as daunting as last season -- in fact, Boston is 30-17 since Jan. 1 and 18-13 since Feb. 1. But its inability to generate any sort of consistency lately is allowing the first signs of doubt to creep into the locker room.

"It's a pretty different team," said Rajon Rondo, comparing last year's team to now. "It's not the same team. We're not going to be able to turn it on like we did last year. Even last year, we came up short [in Games 6 and 7 of the NBA Finals]. I don't know what we're waiting on, but these type of games we have to find a way to win.

"It's a roller coaster right now, and we went back down today."

The fact that there are only four games left in the regular season exacerbates matters. There's not a whole lot of time left to cure what ails this team, and that may be part of the reason frustration is mounting.

The Celtics want to be playing their best basketball this time of year, but instead they're still searching for how to harness those nights when everything does click.

On Thursday against Eastern Conference-leading Chicago, the Celtics came out of halftime with a manageable five-point deficit and got outclassed over the next 24 minutes. Boston couldn't stop Derrick Rose from attacking the basket, couldn't generate any offense near its own rim and watched the Bulls open as much as an 18-point lead before waving a rare white flag in the final minutes.

Rewind one week and it was the Celtics taking over in the second half in a confidence-inspiring triumph over the Western Conference-leading Spurs. Rivers told his team not to get too high after that win, so he's encouraging them not to get too low after another Chicago letdown.

"Overall, [the Bulls] competed far better than us," Rivers said. "As far as us -- whatever, we'll figure that out.

"We still have time. There's no panic button, nothing like that."

While players such as Kevin Garnett were willing to admit that "we got our a-- kicked tonight," the Big Four still openly expressed concern about the team's recent play.

"We didn't play with the right spirit tonight," Garnett said. "We didn't create enough fight in the second half. We're a better team than that. If we're going to do anything in the postseason, we gotta get some more fight in this team."

Boston's big four, the core upon which Rivers proclaimed before the game that the Celtics could lean on regardless of health and contributions, combined to produce a mere 39 points on 15-of-43 shooting (34.9 percent). And that doesn't add in a dreadful 1-for-8 shooting performance from quasi-fifth starter Glen Davis, the team's sixth man who logs starter minutes while spending much of his floor time with that big four.

"These are the moments that challenge us all, and I believe that you just sit back and think about what you can do to be better out there," said Ray Allen, who piggybacked on Rivers' no-panic theme. "We've all been in situations like this before, and how to make it better is you just do it a little bit harder."

Even Rivers couldn't help but admit there's a difference between saying it and doing it. Rivers recalled how he turned on "SportsCenter" in his hotel room Thursday morning to see Derrick Rose talking about how the Bulls were "playing like crap."

Rose then erupted for 30 points on 9-of-16 shooting with eight assists, five rebounds and two steals, backing up all those chants of "MVP!" that the United Center crowd serenaded him with Thursday night as he carried his team to a win that essentially guaranteed it will garner the top seed in the East.

"You gotta go back it up, and he did," Rivers said.

Now it's time for the Celtics to do the same.

"It's frustrating," Garnett said. "We're going to find out what we're made of these last couple games. We have to."

Added Rondo: "It better be a wakeup call. If not, we won't make it far."

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.