Celtics can't win for losing at home

BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics made a subtle change in their locker room this week. Gone is a picture of the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy that once hung near the entrance beside the message, "Begin with the end in mind."

No, with a 15-13 mark as the All-Star break nears, the idea of a quick start has apparently sailed, hammered home as Boston dropped a head-shaking 98-88 decision to the basement-dwelling Detroit Pistons on Wednesday evening at TD Garden.

Boston has now lost three of its past four and, if it wasn't abundantly clear already, this season is going to be a grind from start to finish.

Maybe with that in mind, the trophy photo has been replaced by a smaller poster that declares teams win championships, not individuals (replete with a Celtics logo in the middle). It's a friendly reminder that Boston will need all 15 players on its roster to step up if it is to achieve its ultimate goal, which is capturing the real version of NBA Finals trophy that the discarded poster depicts.

On this night, however, the Celtics were unable to overcome the absences of Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass, stumbling late against the Pistons despite a strong one-man effort from point guard Rajon Rondo and his career-high 35 points.

"I want to play better, clearly," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said in suggesting he's not overly concerned about recent losses. "We're going through a lot of stuff with all the injuries, but so are other teams. And I just think it's going to be this type of year.

"I keep saying it: It's going to be up and down, and you know every time it looks like we're about to take off and play well, we do this," Rivers said. "And I'm hoping at some point this year, it'll keep doing this and then we'll take off.

"But we haven't done that. There are signs that we can, but we just haven't followed through on it."

And so, the signs have to change, evidently.

For fans of this team, the season has been spectacularly frustrating: from early-season struggles that had most ready to blow the roster up, to winning nine of 10, including five in a row spanning into the start of February.

Then came lifeless losses to the Los Angeles Lakers and Toronto Raptors, only to be followed by a big win Sunday against a Chicago Bulls squad that boasted the league's best record.

Two steps forward, one step back, with Wednesday erasing any goodwill from Sunday's triumph.

It's a curious time to make the signage swap in the locker room, considering the Celtics won't be back in the Garden for the better part of the next two weeks. Ninety minutes after Wednesday's loss the team was boarding a flight to Chicago, where a five-game road trek tips off Thursday night with a rematch against the Bulls.

The Celtics follow with games at Detroit, Dallas and Oklahoma City before breaking for All-Star festivities in Orlando. The team will reconvene in Cleveland in the final week of the month before (finally) returning home to play the Milwaukee Bucks on Feb. 29.

Boston's carry-on bags were filled with frustration Wednesday. Frustration at letting a win slip away against the Pistons and not taking better advantage of a home-heavy schedule over the first two months of the season.

Boston is 11-8 at the Garden this season. As part of this condensed 66-game season, the Celtics will play only 14 more home games over the final two-plus months -- including just six of their 17 games in March, during which their schedule features a daunting eight-game road trip.

"We understand that it's going to be an uphill battle with the teams we're facing [on this upcoming road trip], but I think this team will be up to the challenge," Paul Pierce said. "Maybe KG will be back for some of those games. But if he's not, guys just have to be ready for the adversity of not having Brandon, KG and anyone else who's not going to be out there. We responded earlier in the year when we had injuries; we're just going to have to do it again."

Pierce said the disappointing home record has come as a surprise.

"Really, I don't understand the reason," he said, "just a lot of inconsistent play. Maybe sometimes the team needs a little road trip to get it together; maybe this is a trip that we need."

It's a sentiment echoed by Rondo, who, on the heels of a triple-double Sunday against the Bulls, registered his career best for points behind 15-of-27 shooting. Pierce and Ray Allen, on the other hand, accounted for a mere four field goals behind them.

"The main thing is our record is 1-1 these last two games," said Rondo, who didn't want to dwell on the past.

"We want to look forward now," he said. "Hopefully this [road trip] will bring us closer together -- not that we were a distant team or whatever, but the road seems to bring guys together, and hopefully this will do that for us."

For his part, Rivers isn't losing sleep over the break down of road vs. home games. He said why bother fretting what you can't control. Rivers can't change the locations of Boston's remaining regular-season games, but he can eliminate some of the frustrations by getting his team to play more consistent basketball.

"That part doesn't bother me at all; the road/home schedule hasn't. It never did," Rivers said. "I think we're really good on the road."

"So far, we've proven we can beat anybody and lose to anybody," he said. "That's the maddening part. What we haven't proven is that we can be a consistent basketball team, and that's where we have to get to."

The Celtics started this season's quest for consistency with a little interior decorating at home, but much of the remainder of the journey will occur outside those walls.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.