Celtics absorb another scary blow

PHILADELPHIA -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers had just finished offering a brief medical update on the condition of Mickael Pietrus, who had been taken off the court on a stretcher following a frightening head injury during Friday's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, and shook his head as he processed yet another health scare for his club.

"It's just been a hell of a year right now," said Rivers.

In a way, the Celtics have become numb to their health woes. In a season that's seen two players (Chris Wilcox, Jeff Green) lost for the year because of heart conditions detected in routine physicals and another (Jermaine O'Neal) lost to a degenerative left wrist injury, seeing another teammate go down seemed to fit the pattern of the season.

But this one was frightening. Pietrus crashed hard to the floor after getting tangled with Philadelphia's Lou Williams on a hard drive to the basket in the second quarter, his head whiplashing back as he spilled to the ground.

Medical staff attended to Pietrus for nearly 10 minutes before he was immobilized, carried off the court and taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital.

The team offered encouraging news late Friday night, terming the injury a questionable closed head injury (concussion) and noting that Pietrus was undergoing tests but would not be admitted to the hospital. Instead, he simply stayed the night in the Philadelphia area and was scheduled to be re-evaluated on Saturday.

The long-term prognosis of his injury is still to be determined, but being discharged served as a rare dose of optimistic health news. Even still, the injury took its toll emotionally on the Celtics, who sleepwalked through the third quarter. They were outscored by 20 in the frame on the way to absorbing a 99-86 loss to the 76ers in a key Atlantic Division battle.

Rivers found a silver lining in how his team battled. Not only was the team playing without Pietrus, but Ray Allen sat out of the game with an ankle injury and Avery Bradley departed with a sprained left ankle late in the first half.

Boston still clung to a one-point lead with under five minutes to play in the third quarter before the game slipped away, the 76ers simply playing with more energy and fire than a physically -- and emotionally -- battered Celtics team could muster.

"We have a resilient group," said Rivers. "I'm so proud of our team -- we just keep sustaining injuries. But guys are just trying to play and win. That's really nice. …

"[The constant health issues are] maddening, but it is what it is. We are passing the test. That's all we can do. It's just tough. Every night it seems like -- what's amazing is it has nothing to do with age, it's the young guys. Things happen. But I keep telling them, we've decided to be that grind team, we gotta keep doing that."

And while the well-being of Pietrus was the top priority for his teammates after the game, Celtics captain Paul Pierce noted how the team had to keep fighting through all the adversity this season.

"Night in and night out we're presented with challenges," said Pierce. "When one guy goes down, another guy has to be ready to step up. There's no excuse. We've got guys sitting out, but we've won games with guys sitting out before."

Pierce expressed frustration in the late-third-quarter meltdown that saw Elton Brand catch fire and aid the 76ers in outscoring Boston 37-17 in the frame, flipping Boston's six-point halftime cushion into a 14-point deficit.

The Pietrus injury seemed to weigh on the team.

It hit hard for Celtics swingman Marquis Daniels, who endured a frighteningly similar episode last season in suffering a freak spine injury that required surgery and ended his year.

"It's hard to move past it," Daniels said of Pietrus' injury. "It's still resonating in your head, you're still thinking about it, praying for him, just hoping that he's OK."

Daniels said he immediately began praying for Pietrus, but said Pietrus is a tough player and knows he'll pull through.

All this adversity has convinced the Celtics they will pull through when the games matter most.

Things have been anything but easy for Boston this season. Health woes have contributed to inconsistent play, leaving the Celtics with a 25-22 record and holding the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.

With the win Friday night, the 76ers ensured they'll own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Boston, meaning the Celtics have work to do in order to win the division. The Atlantic crown guarantees the owner no worse than the No. 4 seed and home court in the first round of the playoffs.

It might be the difference between playing an easier series against another middle seed and being locked up with a top dog like Miami on the road in the first round.

The Celtics know there's still plenty of time left to catch Philadelphia, but even if they don't, it won't break them. After all, what's a little more adversity this season?

Yes, they've had every reason to roll over and simply wave the white flag. Instead, the Celtics have produced some of their most inspired ball in the season's toughest games. They're leaning on a hope that all the obstacles they've encountered will only make them a better team when the stakes are the highest.

Yes, as Rivers noted, it's been a hell of a year. It'll make whatever they accomplish in the postseason that much sweeter for having overcome it all.