WALTHAM, Mass. -- These transitioning Boston Celtics have put a premium on players who operate with a desire to compete and understand the significance of putting on the uniform.
It's why Chris Babb is on the bench, fighting to earn every penny of a 10-day contract that will pay him roughly $46,000. And it's why Keith Bogans was sent home to finish collecting $5.1 million in guaranteed salary.
The Celtics understand the situation they are in. The team is 20-40 entering the fourth quarter of the 2013-14 season. From a casual fan's perspective, the biggest intrigue over the final 22 games is whether Boston, which currently owns the fourth-worst record in basketball, can generate any additional pingpong balls by sinking lower in the standings.
But to first-year coach Brad Stevens, the focus has to be on getting better and ultimately working against the casual fan's goal by trying to win games.
"I think we've done a great job of bringing in guys that are not necessarily world-beaters, but great guys, great teammates," said Stevens. "They do whatever you ask them to do and are excited to be here. They know and understand the responsibility of wearing that uniform. They get it.
"As a result, you've got a lot of guys playing really hard regardless of who's out there. It's a credit to guys like Gerald [Wallace]. You want to play hard with him out [season-ending knee and ankle surgery]. We owe that to him. I'm excited because we're getting better. But it's rough because I want to win that game [Saturday against the Pacers]. That game -- we had a shot to win."
The Celtics entered Saturday's tilt 25 games back of league-leading Indiana. They had already lost two games to the Pacers by an average of 21 points, including a pre-Christmas shellacking in Indy that spoiled Stevens' homecoming. But despite mounting injuries, the sort that forced Stevens to play Babb or little-used Joel Anthony in small bursts, the Celtics took Indiana to the wire before dropping a 102-97 decision at TD Garden.
Boston players could be forgiven if they elected to put the 2013-14 season on autopilot over the final 44 days of the season, but Jared Sullinger, who has been barking since last summer about how this team refuses to tank, said these Celtics won't roll over.
"I think the biggest thing is that teams where we are at right now can really just kind of give up and say, 'You know what? Forget this season. Let's try again next year,'" said Sullinger.
Forget the season? Sullinger suggested the Celtics are saying "Forget that."
"I don't think any of us are thinking like that, and it shows in our play," he said. "Every night, we come out and we play hard. We're always in the game. We've just got to make two or three more plays a half and we'll come out with the outcome of winning the game. I don't think nobody wants to give up on this season. Everybody is out playing hard and trying to get better.
"I just think that's just a testament to Brad, honestly. He hasn't given up. He's still coaching his butt off. He hasn't given up on us. I think this team has bought into his system, has bought into his coaching style."
One of the most commonly echoed sentiments around the league has been that the Celtics play hard. The subtle insinuation is that teams in Boston's position don't often do that. And it starts with Stevens, who simply refuses to stop coaching. Whether his team is down 1 or 15 in the final minutes, he is going offense-defense trying to rally his team.
"[Celtics players are] professional[s] with a job to do, I'm a professional with a job to do, [and] you do your best every day," Stevens said of his approach to these final 22 games. "That's what you're paid to do. Sometimes that's not good enough; sometimes it is good enough. Sometimes you don't do a great job and you win anyways. Sometimes you do a really good job and you lose anyways. But at the end of the day, it's really the only way to go about it."
Stevens beamed as he walked through the practice facility Monday, the second of two scheduled days off for the Celtics, when he found most of his charges getting up shots, lifting weights or (given the team's lengthy infirmary report) receiving treatment. That energized him for Tuesday's practice, and he said he expected nothing less than a great session.
But does Stevens believe his team can truly avoid mentally checking out?
"That's a story to be told, right? So you gotta not do it," he said. "But at the end of the day, your DNA should be to play the next game as well as you possibly can. ... If you let your circumstances control your thoughts, you're probably not going to be good in the long run anyways. So we've got to continue to have the right attitude, continue to compete. I thought we made strides in the last two games, and hopefully we can build upon that."
Each of Boston's final 22 games offers another chance to get better and a chance to taste victory. Chances are the majority of those games will end with losses, but Stevens wants the same fight he saw Saturday against Indiana.
Reflecting on his first 60 games as an NBA head coach, Stevens said he'll never get used to losing.
"The problem is the record isn't where any of us want it," he said. "If we were 40-20, it still wouldn't be where I'd want it. You always overanalyze the things that don't go well. At the end of the day, we are getting a little bit better, which is good. I hope that we can get healthy and, now that we have our roster set, that we can move forward and play some healthy basketball together in the next six weeks."
Stevens refuses to put the season on cruise control. He's imploring his players to do the same. The first 60 games suggest they'll listen.