BOSTON -- The optimism that permeated the Boston Celtics' locker room after the team showed encouraging strides last week eroded on Sunday. Despite hanging with the defending champion San Antonio Spurs for three quarters, many Celtics players were oozing frustration after enduring another abysmal final quarter that helped San Antonio hand Boston its most lopsided loss of the season with a 111-89 triumph at TD Garden.
While Sullinger finished up at one end of the locker room, Jeff Green was echoing his sentiments at the other.
"We're losing, it's frustrating," Green said. "We've just got to figure out a way."
It has been a bit like Groundhog Day around the Celtics. The team plays well early, often builds a modest lead, then things get tight again in the fourth quarter and the team can't make the plays necessary to secure the win it so desperately craves.
Boston has lost seven of its past eight games, and the one victory required a rally on the road to top the winless 76ers. The Celtics' last win before that was on Nov. 8 in Chicago, or 22 days ago. It feels like a lifetime.
Boston's frustration stems in large part from its inability to put together 48 consistent minutes. It'd be one thing if the team was getting run out of the gym every time it hit the floor. Then it could just accept its fate as a lottery-bound doormat and play for the future instead of the present.
But the Celtics show glimpses of potential most times out before faltering late. Maybe that's why Sunday's loss stung a bit more than usual. Boston's typical frustration stems from letting a winnable game slip away; the Spurs simply steamrolled Boston for the final 10 minutes of what had been a one-possession game early in the fourth quarter.
It culminated with Jeff Ayres throwing down a one-handed dunk while knocking over the recently demoted Kelly Olynyk in the final minute -- the exclamation point on San Antonio's dominant final stretch.
Boston's woes are not hard to explain, but correcting them is another issue. The Celtics own the second worst fourth-quarter net differential in the league at minus-22 points per 100 possessions. Boston's offensive rating is a mere 95, while the defensive rating is a cringe-worthy 117 (only the New Orleans Pelicans are worse defensively in the final frame).
Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who has done his best to maintain an even-keeled approach this month, admitted his team simply crumbled on Sunday.
"I thought that, over time, [the Spurs] probably broke us unlike other teams have broken us," Stevens said. "And again, credit them. I told the guys in the locker room, that's probably the best basketball team that I’ve seen in my adult lifetime, as far as how they’re coached, how they play, their understanding their roles. And you can hear them walking back in their locker room. There’s a reason they’re really good. I mean, they’ve built a bond and a trust that is very special."
Boston is searching for that trust on both ends of the floor, particularly in the final quarter.
Celtics captain Rajon Rondo held a lengthy chat with Celtics legend Tommy Heinsohn in the Boston locker room after Sunday's game. Heinsohn, an eight-time NBA champion as a player and a two-time champion as a coach, did most of the talking as Rondo nodded in agreement.
"Keep chugging away at it," Rondo said. "We talked for a while. He shared his thoughts; I shared my thoughts as well. Tommy’s a guy I’ve been talking to since Day 1, he’s been a big fan of mine and I believe in what he’s done here in the past. He’s coached, he’s played, he’s done it all. So when you find a guy like Tommy has advice or wants to share something I always try to listen."
Of Heinsohn's advice, Rondo said, "Just stay positive. Continue to push the pace -- in the fourth quarter we tend to walk the ball up the court. Myself, I was just sharing my thoughts about how it’s hard to push the pace when the ball’s going through the net every time. It’s just difficult. Like I said, it starts on the defensive end of the floor."
Rondo said he was going to try to take Heinsohn's message and relay it to his teammates.
"It’s a long season. We can’t get too down on ourselves," Rondo said. "The thing that I like to say to myself is never too high, never too low. ... Right now we’re going through a tough stretch, but I believe we will get better. It’s just a matter of time before it happens.
"The best thing is we’ve got around  more games to go, so we can’t get too down on ourselves, obviously. We can critique our mistakes and we need to get better, but it starts with us individually and looking ourselves in the mirror. And doing what we need to do best for our team, making sacrifices."
The Celtics said good riddance to November on Sunday. The team knew that the first full month of the NBA season would be grueling, and it lived up to the hype. But Stevens doesn't buy the notion that an easing of the schedule will necessarily help his team.
"I don't think that will change the results unless we change," Stevens said.
"I thought we were really doing a lot of good things [Sunday], but then we string two or three possessions together where we just don’t, we don’t play the right way on both ends of the floor. And that adds up, and it gets you beat. By some teams it gets you beat by eight or nine, some teams it gets you beat at the end of the game. And one team -- they just crush you. And that’s what happened today. And I think that that’s what the Spurs do.
"I told [his players], I thought it was really the greatest example of the Spurs, the dunk at the end of the game, because the Spurs play the right way all the time. They never change. They do it for 48 minutes; they do it for 82 games. There is no circumstance that affects how they approach the game. And I think that that’s something that hopefully we can learn from but you know, hey, we’re playing NBA teams this whole next month too, and so unless we change the results won’t change."
And the results have to change or frustration will engulf the Celtics' locker room.