Celtics' hands aren't on panic button

BOSTON -- Before the Boston Celtics took the floor Thursday night, Delonte West made a final plea with the team's training staff to be cleared to play. Just one day after participating in his first full-contact practice since fracturing his right wrist in late November, West lobbied hard for clearance to suit up.

In a simpler time -- say 11 days ago, when the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers first met -- these decisions would have been simple. West would have immediately been told no, and that would have been that. But the Celtics were dressing only 10 healthy bodies against the rival Lakers on Thursday, and that alone might have been reason enough for the medical staff to at least consider West's appeal.

Fortunately, Celtics coach Doc Rivers was within earshot and gave a quick reminder that long-term health remains paramount to short-term needs. Said Rivers: "They were going back and forth on it. I said, 'If we have to go back and fourth on it, then the answer is no, all right?'"

The Celtics surely could have used West on Thursday night, particularly after backup guard Nate Robinson hopped off the floor with a bruised right knee in the second quarter and did not return. But even with only nine healthy bodies at his disposal, Rivers refused to peg the 92-86 setback on injuries.

"We had what we had," said Rivers. "Whether [a healthy roster] would have made a difference or not, I don't know the answer. But we had enough bodies [to compete] tonight, we just didn't do it the way we wanted to."

After the Celtics stomped the Lakers 109-96 late last month, they were anointed the best team in basketball. They deserved that crown, and still might down the road.

But over the past week, Boston has been devoured by the injury bug, dropped three of its past four games and suddenly finds itself tied atop the Eastern Conference standings with a surging Miami squad (seven straight wins) that visits the Garden on Sunday.

Not only did the Lakers emerge from Boston with a win, they might have left behind a sliver of the panic that has engulfed the two-time defending champs since losing to the Celtics last month.

To be sure, the Celtics were not slamming any panic buttons after Thursday's defeat. Like Rivers, Boston players stressed that they got away from their plan of attack and let a winnable game slip away.

The distressing part is that Thursday's game played out an awful lot like Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Boston built an early lead, controlled the game into the third quarter, then seemed to run out of gas while stumbling to the finish line. (Maybe home court advantage doesn't matter that much, after all.)

Boston expects to be healthier when the playoffs roll around, but there are never any guarantees. In the face of mounting injuries, suddenly the 2010-11 season is playing out a lot like the 2009-10 campaign, in which Boston sacrificed wins in the hopes of getting healthy for the postseason.

The Celtics hope to have the likes of Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal when it matters most. But they know better than anyone that they can't pin their hopes on that.

"I don't know, it definitely hurts when you don't have the normal guys to come off of the bench to kind of spell you," admitted captain Paul Pierce. "Certain guys played extended minutes, but that's no excuse. We went up [15] points. We had a chance to go up even more and we let them creep back into the game and, in the third quarter, they turned it up. We didn't adjust to it at all."

Added Kevin Garnett: "It's difficult. You know, they have big guys. I think [Lamar Odom]'s done a great job of rebounding and coming off the bench and giving them a spark. [Andrew] Bynum and Pau [Gasol] play very well off each other. I think the team that's won the rebounding duel has won the game. So [that]'s one of the keys that Doc told us -- that that was one of the things we needed to do for the game. But I just think when you look down, we didn't do any of the things we set out to. We didn't [reach] any goals tonight."

Well, they did reach one -- an individual milestone, at least. But the loss surely tempered what should have been a celebratory night after Ray Allen surpassed Reggie Miller as the NBA's all-time leader in 3-point field goals, canning two first-quarter trifectas to etch his name on the top line of the record book.

After Allen's moment threatened to blow the roof off the Garden, the Celtics lost their intensity. They downshifted, and the Lakers made them pay.

It's a quality lesson to learn. After all, it's a tiny microcosm of what the Celtics are experiencing this season. Boston boasted a 37-11 record at the conclusion of the four-game West Coast road trip that included the win over the Lakers, but has taken its foot off the accelerator over the past week.

A loss Sunday to the Heat would give them as many losses in the first 13 days of February as they accrued in all of January. It would also drop them to second in the Eastern Conference. Panic buttons would be dusted off, even if it still wouldn't be time to pound away on them.

For now, Rivers and his troops are maintaining their composure. They see the long-term goal and understand it's more important to protect West and his wrist than thrust him in the middle of an ultra-physical game and potentially hinder themselves more. In a way, they win more that way than a victory could have provided Thursday.

The Celtics think that, if they can limp to the All-Star break, they'll be able to get some bodies back and right this ship. Amidst these recent struggles, they've looked average, but it shouldn't take away from the fact that, when healthy, they remain a championship-caliber team.

Keep those panic buttons under glass ... for now.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.