BOSTON -- Give the Boston Celtics this: They've had plenty of potential excuses for their current nine-game losing streak -- a young team, a flawed roster, a first-year coach, tougher competition, an extended road trip, a midseason trade -- and yet Brad Stevens refuses to let his team lean on any of them.
Case in point: The Celtics, fresh off a winless five-game trip out west that closed with four games in five nights, trekked cross-country on Sunday and welcomed another Western Conference power in the Houston Rockets on Monday night.
Boston started fast, but faded quickly. The Rockets dominated the middle quarters, built a 20-point lead, then navigated a Hack-a-Howard attempt and a Celtics charge before emerging with a 104-92 triumph at TD Garden.
Asked about the challenges coming off the road trip, Stevens opened his postgame news conference by immediately discarding the notion of fatigue.
"I told our guys afterward, I don't want to be the team that talks about the travel and then having to play," Stevens said. Later he added, "I don't want to be the team that uses that. Is it a reality? Is it a factor? Might be. But is it something that I want to talk about? No. I don't think that way, and I think that's why you have 14 guys -- go after each opportunity."
Stevens opened up his rotation Monday, employing 13 of his 14 available bodies, including a late-game combination that featured a new face (Jerryd Bayless), a player fresh off a D-League assignment (MarShon Brooks) and a recently demoted forward (Brandon Bass) playing the entire fourth quarter.
Stevens' message seems to have been received by his players. Inside the locker room after Monday's game, Jared Sullinger sported Kinesio Tape on his neck, which he reluctantly noted had been spasming during the game.
"We don't use excuses around here," Sullinger said. "[Fatigue is] not an excuse, it's not something you can hide behind. We're fighting, we're playing hard. Fatigue is out the door. We can't use that as an excuse."
The Celtics also seem reluctant to accept silver linings. They'll admit there are positives to be plucked from the winless road trip, including playing a more competitive brand of basketball over the final three games. But Stevens noted before Monday's tilt that's "not quite good enough."
Veteran forward/center Kris Humphries hammered that home after Monday's game. Asked if he had seen his team improve over the past three or four games, Humphries responded, "This team, meaning us?"
He took a deep breath and added, "Well, we've played great in stretches, but in the NBA it's not about being able to play well for a quarter. A lot of teams can play well for a quarter or two quarters. It's about playing well throughout the game and, more than anything, finishing games well and stopping people from making big runs on you. I think we've just got to mature in that aspect and keep working. It starts with practice tomorrow."
Stevens has stressed time and time again that he will not gauge progress of his young team based solely on wins and losses. Alas, that's the most universal metric and, fair or not, that's how observers will judge his team.
The first-year coach has noted that his team has played better in some of its recent losses than it did in distant wins last month, particularly considering the talent level of the competition. But that doesn't make enduring nine straight losses (and 12 defeats in 13 tries) any easier. Boston hasn't won since Dec. 28.
"There are all kinds of positives, but they don't make you feel any better at night," Stevens said. "That's the reality of it. This is hard to go through. This is unenjoyable to go through. But it doesn't mean there's not growth. It's not consistent all the time, but it doesn't mean there's not growth on individuals' parts."
When Stevens rewinds the tape on Monday's game, he'll savor Avery Bradley's two-way effort. Bradley gave Boston a scoring jolt early -- 14 of his team-high 24 points came in the first quarter as Boston built a nine-point lead -- and harassed Houston's James Harden much of the night. Harden finished with 16 points, but on 6-of-18 shooting with three turnovers, one of which Bradley ripped from his hands at midcourt.
Stevens also will nod approvingly while watching Bayless score 15 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter, the new addition to the roster putting his combo guard talents on full display while giving Boston a chance to rally.
But Stevens will cringe watching the middle quarters, often an alley-oop-apalooza for Dwight Howard. The Rockets outscored the Celtics 65-38 in the middle frames.
Only four quarters of consistent play will bring Stevens true peace of mind, and even that will be fleeting because he'll be right on to the next game.