WALTHAM, Mass. -- It has been about a month since Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers suggested that his team was "soft" after being manhandled by the Brooklyn Nets in late November. The one time the Celtics pushed back that night, Rajon Rondo ended up with a two-game suspension.
The Celtics have played more inspired ball since then, hell-bent on erasing Rivers' doughy declaration, but their record is no better. The Celtics have lost six of their last 11 games and will trek to Brooklyn for a Christmas Day rematch (ESPN, noon) with a 13-13 record.
For Boston, this isn't just a chance to gauge how much it has toughened up, but it's the start of what the players believe is a crucial four-game road trip, one aimed at carving out -- or restoring -- the team's identity and ending the roller-coaster start to the 2012-13 season. And the Celtics are adamant about starting it on the right foot.
"We don't want to overlook Brooklyn to start the road trip off," Rondo said. "They came and pushed us around a couple times, so it's going to be a physical game and we have to bring it. Not just for one game, but continuously put some games together because our record is .500, but we're a much better team. There's no excuses, our record is what it is."
Rondo will be in the spotlight after how the last meeting played out. Upset by a hard foul that sent teammate Kevin Garnett crashing to the floor, Rondo delivered a two-handed shove to Kris Humphries and the two became intertwined before tumbling into the seats below the baseline. Rondo was suspended two games for his actions, while Garnett and Gerald Wallace were fined for escalating the altercation.
Referees are likely to call Tuesday's game a little tighter to prevent anything from getting out of control, but the Celtics absolutely cannot get caught up in a chippy game. The way Boston is playing, it needs to focus on nothing but putting together 48 consistent minutes of basketball, which has been a struggle for much of this season.
"We are definitely playing better," Rivers said. "I haven't used that word [soft] again, so I think I like where we are trending as a team. The facts still say we're a .500 team right now. We have to do a lot of things better."
One of those things is playing with more physicality (while walking that fine line between turning it into a wrestling match). Celtics captain Paul Pierce knows his team's physicality will be tested in Brooklyn.
"I think we're playing with a little more grit than we have, especially that [last Brooklyn] game," Pierce said. "So it's definitely a test. They are a physical team, they rebound the ball well. They have big players at positions that are bigger than normal, and we've got our work cut out for us. It's the start of a long road trip for us, so we look forward to playing them and getting off to a good start."
What would a win mean to Boston?
"Obviously, it means we get a win," Rivers said. "Going out west, it'd be a good win to get because it sets up the rest of the trip. It's always nice when you can win the first game on a road trip because it kind of gives you a positive feeling going out on the road. Other than that, they've beat us twice; we need to beat them. So it would mean that."
After that loss to the Nets in November, Rivers suggested that Brooklyn -- and the rest of the league -- had every reason to believe Boston was soft. He suggested that the Celtics were not intimidating anyone with the way they had played early this season.
With two wins over the Celtics already under their belts, the Nets are unlikely to fear Boston and its special monochromatic green jerseys on Christmas Day.
These identity-less Celtics need to reassert themselves and make opponents take notice when they come to town. Getting back to a familiar brand of hard-nosed defense would be a start.
"I feel the confidence that we can play with anybody and beat anybody, but do we have the swagger? I don't think we're giving anybody the swagger yet," Pierce said. "You have to develop that, and that comes with your record and how you play. You can't be a fighter, lose all your fights and come in there like you're the man. It just don't work that way. We've got to get some games under our belts, we've got to get some big wins under our belts, and then you develop that swagger."
Rivers echoed those sentiments.
"You've got to earn that [swagger], and you've got to earn that every year," Rivers said. "We haven't earned that right yet.
"Every year, teams don't go into next year thinking about the team you had last year. They go in trying to beat this year's team. And until you go on a roll and start playing well and getting people's notice, no, I don't think anyone fears us right now."
WIth a national audience watching on Christmas, the Celtics will have a chance to assert that they're not soft, that they still have some swagger. After they failed to so last month in Boston, the Celtics will finally have a real chance to push back -- and maybe even take off -- against Brooklyn.