WALTHAM, Mass. -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers was pondering ways to light a fire under his team as it limped through the first half of Wednesday's visit from the Brooklyn Nets, but point guard Rajon Rondo beat him to the punch (or maybe shove is the better word).
Staring at another double-digit deficit and being outmuscled for the second time in a month by Atlantic Division rival Brooklyn, Rondo allowed his frustration to overflow when Kris Humphries dropped Kevin Garnett to the floor on a baseline drive.
The severity of that initial infraction is open to debate, though most seem to believe it wasn't as ill-spirited as Rondo makes it out to be. Regardless, Boston's lifeless effort as part of an overall inconsistent start to the 2012-13 campaign probably contributed to Rondo's outburst that saw him deliver a two-handed shove to Humphries' chest, and the two soon spilled into the stands beyond the baseline.
On Thursday, the NBA suspended Rondo for two games without pay for fighting Humphries, while both Garnett ($25,000) and Gerald Wallace ($35,000) were fined for escalating the altercation.
Soft. It's by far the worst four-letter word you can utter in an NBA locker room. It's also what Rivers branded his team, suggesting that's how the rest of the league views the Celtics given their uninspired and uneven play to start the season.
Leave it to Rondo, the smallest player on the court, to step up for Boston, even if it wasn't the exact sort of toughness Rivers was looking for.
"I don't know if I want to rally around my 6-foot guard being the enforcer. Honestly," Rivers said. "That's nice. But, at the end of the day, if that's the threat you're sending ... "
Rivers' voice trailed off, but his dilemma is clear. The Celtics lack an honest-to-goodness enforcer. So it was Rondo who stepped up and did all he could to light his team's fire Wednesday. It came at the expense of an early departure and he'll remain off the court for both ends of Boston's upcoming back-to-back (Friday vs. Portland, Saturday in Milwaukee).
Does Rivers think Rondo's message rubbed off on his teammates?
"Listen, the message should have been sent by the scoreboard, the offensive rebounds, and all the talking the other team was doing," Rivers said. "That should have been the message. If that's got to be the message then we've got real problems."
Even beyond the toughness, the Celtics have real problems. In fact, Rondo's suspension might be the least of them. The league didn't come down nearly as hard as some imagined it might with Rondo's two-game ban, and Boston will have to navigate only consecutive nights without him.
As the shorthanded-by-design Spurs showed Thursday night (drawing the ire of commissioner David Stern), sometimes playing without your superstars isn't the worst thing in the world. The Celtics were supposed to have the sort of overall depth this season to win games even when the core members of the team had a reduced workload.
Rivers is desperately trying to get his players -- particularly the newer faces -- to buy into what has made Boston so successful in recent seasons. That's a commitment to team defense and playing gritty, hard-nosed basketball.
But it's easier said than done.
"Well, we don't work on toughness," Rivers said. "We work on smartness. We work on being prepared, playing with the force. Listen, the toughness thing, all that stuff, you know how I feel about it -- that's so overblown. You can't be tough anyway. I don't know who is tough anymore. Having said that, we have to be better. I have to prepare them better. They have to come ready. They have to come with the right intentions, the right focus. So, there's a lot of things we can improve to improve our team. And it's a long season to do it, but you can't wait for it. You've got to do it now."
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said he thought the team responded well after Rondo's flare-up.
"I think there was a burst of momentum for us, and I think we did respond in the right way to sort of, the whole thing," Ainge said. "We did make a run at it, we did get back in the game. It was a game that was not going well. Body language was not good, nothing was going right for us -- Reggie Evans hitting fadeaway jump shots. I mean, there was a lot of stuff happening out there. But I think that that's a whole other issue. Being able to just maintain that effort and fight. ...
"A frustrating thing that I've had with this team over the last two years -- not just this year; matter of fact it might be less this year than it was last year -- as we got off to a really bad start and we turned it on later in the year as we came together. And the year before we went all the way to Game 7 in the NBA Finals after going 27-27. So, I think that that's our pattern and that's frustrating, again, that we're on cruise control, and trying to turn it on when we think we have a chance to win and our fourth quarters are more intense than other parts of the game. Are we understanding how hard it is to win games in the game of basketball, in the NBA right now? You can't just show up to play, but you have to show up to win, and winning is much harder."
Yes, winning is tough. And that's what Rivers needs his team to do, and be, moving forward.