BOSTON -- They now are officially No. 2 in the Eastern Conference. Doc Rivers no longer has an automatic seat on the bench of the Eastern Conference All-Stars, not that that was ever high on his personal agenda.
The Boston Celtics have pretty much owned the East since their opening-night win over the Miami Heat way back in October, but my, how things have changed since then. With their utterly uninspiring performance Monday night, resulting in a 108-102 loss to the undermanned Houston Rockets, the Celtics now trail the rampaging Heat by one game. And the way things are going, it could be a lot more than one game when those teams meet again next month.
Rivers said Monday might have been the worst defensive performance he's seen in four seasons -- and expressed concern that his troops were too busy focusing on the big picture while paying short shrift to the day-to-day things that need attention. That's certainly how it looked against the Rockets: no sense of urgency, a cruise-control mentality simply figuring the personnel-challenged road team would eventually buckle and the good guys would prevail in the end.
Doesn't work that way, as if the Celtics don't intuitively know that. They all talk about the importance of what the philosopher king Rick Pitino called "the precious present." Then they go out and play with a collective body language that screams, "Can't we just get to April? Please?"
We all saw it. They didn't rebound. They were utterly passive on defense, allowing the hot-shooting Rockets (52.7 percent) to smell blood. Houston was without its leading scorer, Kevin Martin. It was without Brad Miller, who gives the Rockets 19 minutes a game. It is still in the process of realigning and redefining since Yao Ming went down and had lost five straight coming into the game.
"It's really disappointing,'' Rivers said, holding all accountable, starting with the person he sees every morning in the mirror. "[Losing] a home game, without one of their best scorers? We lost to Oklahoma City at home without two of their best players [Kevin Durant and Jeff Green]. So you look at some of our other losses, record-wise, and you know it's mental."
Of the nine Boston losses this season, four have been to sub-.500 teams. A Thunder team without Green and Durant would be another.
"That's a mental mindset and it starts with me,'' Rivers went on. "You can see them [not] thinking about the individual game and the ramifications of the entire season. And playing Game 7 on the road. Not just in the [NBA] Finals, if you make it there, but in the playoffs. In the East, that is going to be difficult. This year is not like last year, where you [could] coast. You don't have home court this year, you could go home."
And don't blame this current skid on the absence of Kevin Garnett, whose enthusiasm and intensity would have been most welcome. The Celtics have been in this kind of funk before with KG's motor mouth in full overdrive. For whatever reason, this time of the season for the new Big Three has been an annual exercise in underwhelming play.
Consider the chart below:
As you can see, in each of the past three seasons, the Celtics lost at least as many games in the 22 days between Christmas and Jan. 15 as they had in the first two months of the season. They'd have to lose to either the Sacramento Kings or Charlotte Bobcats this week for that unwanted trend to continue. If they throw another 44-cent stamp on the proceedings Wednesday and Friday, that's just what will happen. A week that seemed to be a gift from the schedule maker (three bad teams, all at home) got off to a horrible start.
"We're not taking advantage of this,'' Paul Pierce said. "There are a lot of games that we're letting slip away that we're supposed to win."
I kept waiting Monday night for Rivers to get himself tossed (and not because there was a good football game to see). He clearly wasn't enjoying what he was seeing. His players weren't listening. It was the perfect occasion to throw a williwaw, take the financial hit for the organization (he can afford it) and then go to the locker room and turn on the Oregon-Auburn game. Let assistant Lawrence Frank see what he could have done with this non-responsive bunch.
But Doc stayed to the bitter end -- and it was a bitter end. The Rockets made seven straight shots after an opening miss to start the fourth quarter (one of them being a great, high-angled bank shot by rookie Patrick Patterson, something you almost never see these days). The Rockets went 7½ minutes without a miss. The Celtics converted on eight of nine possessions and couldn't gain any meaningful ground.
And now they are losing ground in the standings. Miami has overtaken them. The Orlando Magic, in town next Monday, are only three losses behind and take a nine-game winning streak into New Orleans on Wednesday. The Chicago Bulls, who beat the Celtics on Saturday, have the same record as the Magic. The Atlanta Hawks have won eight of 10 and have as many wins as the Bulls and Magic.
On one hand, given the length and breadth of their personnel issues, a 28-9 record after 37 games is a formidable achievement. They still haven't had Kendrick Perkins on the court yet this season. Garnett has been out. Rajon Rondo has been out. Delonte West has been out. Eventually, those things catch up to you and what coaches dread -- slippage -- starts to occur.
The Celtics know it's there. That's a good sign. Rivers says it can be fixed. Another positive.
"I'm not panicked,'' the coach said. "If they don't get it, that means they don't want it. And they want it.''
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.