Celtics end road trip with loss

DENVER -- Back when the Boston Celtics first received their schedule for the season, Doc Rivers probably would have taken three wins on a brutal-looking swing through the Western Conference. Even before wins at Sacramento, Los Angeles and Portland, though, the Celtics' coach decided he had higher goals for his team on the longest road trip it had left on its schedule.

"I wanted 4-0, honestly," Rivers said. "I told the guys that before the trip: 'Let's see if we can sweep this trip.'"

A 114-105 loss to Denver on Sunday will make for a disappointing flight home to Boston -- but only to an extent. This looked like an old and mediocre Celtics team going into the All-Star break, going 9-13 after what should have been a momentum-building win on Christmas at Orlando. Rivers' team had more three-game losing streaks than three-game winning streaks.

Garnett was hurting. Allen was rumored to be on his way out the door. Nothing was going right for anyone.

With that in mind, three wins in four games against four quality teams in the Western Conference -- well, OK, three quality teams in the Western Conference -- is nothing to get down about.

"Our goal was to get four," Kevin Garnett said. "We came up short today. But, for the most part, I think overall we're playing better basketball than previous."

"We're moving in the right direction," Ray Allen said. "We know we've got to go home and we've got to play well at home, but we're moving in the right direction."

"I'm happy with the trip," said Paul Pierce, whose sprained thumb had a lot to do with his worst offensive game of the season (five points). "[Going] 3-1 against some quality ballclubs on the road, it's not easy to do. Our goal right now is to continue to play better. We've made strides on this road trip. The key now is to go home and play better. We haven't played well at home all year long."

After holding the Kings, Lakers and Trail Blazers under 41 percent shooting in their first three games on the road, the Celtics allowed the explosive Nuggets to shoot 51.3 percent from the field -- including 72.7 percent in a first quarter that all but decided the game.

One bright spot: After the Nuggets almost ran the Celtics' starting five off the floor, the bench picked up the slack. Garnett and Rondo finished at minus-13 and minus-16 respectively, but Tony Allen and Glen Davis both finished on the plus side. Marquis Daniels broke even -- and his 15 points and six rebounds didn't look too bad, either.

"Our second unit was fantastic," Rivers said. "They completely got us back in the game. They were great this entire trip."

That second unit now adds Nate Robinson, an explosive scorer who could give opponents fits either as a backup to Rondo or alongside Rondo. Robinson was at the Celtics' practice facility on Sunday and will meet his new coach for the first time on Monday.

As long as Pierce can get himself healthy -- and Rivers seemed to imply he's going to sit his leading scorer at least on Tuesday against the New York Knicks with a thumb injury -- the Celtics might be putting everything together at just the right time.

"I don't know how many more times I'm going to say it: I like this team," Rivers said. "We know who we are. We like our team. We believe we're going to be just as good as anyone else when this is all said and done."

This Celtics team wasn't built to be a 72-win team. This Celtics team was built to win a title -- and the momentum from what turned out to be a pretty good road trip has a chance to overshadow the lousy January that Rivers and his team endured.

"It ain't how you start the fight," Garnett said. "It's how you finish. If you can withstand the first blow -- and hopefully it ain't a Kimbo Slice blow, for those who know Kimbo Slice -- you withstand it. You take it and you keep throwing punches."

The Nuggets threw a Kimbo Slice blow in the first quarter on Sunday. The Celtics still have close to 30 games to keep throwing punches.

Brian MacPherson is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. His e-mail address is brianrmacpherson@gmail.com.