C's roller coaster crashes in Chicago

CHICAGO -- The Boston Celtics are frustrated. There's no denying that. The only thing they've been consistent at this season is playing inconsistent ball.

But know this: The optimism outweighs the frustration at the moment. The team as a whole remains adamant that not only are they making progress, but eventually they'll find that on-court consistency they're so desperately seeking.

It evaded them again Thursday night in dropping an 89-80 decision to the Eastern Conference-leading Chicago Bulls at the United Center. Yet, if you'll allow Rajon Rondo to serve as a team termometer, he placed the frustration level with the loss at an 8.6 (on a simple scale of 1 to 10).

Asked to use the same scale to gauge whether the Celtics will eventually find their consistency, Rondo pegged that at 9.6.

After all, he said, there's no other choice.

"We're either going to find [the consistency], or we're going to find ourselves home early," Rondo said. "And we've got a lot of competitors in this room, so I know that's not the case."

Yes, if you haven't already done so, go ahead and buckle up. This season is going to be a bumpy roller-coaster ride and there's no end in sight. Twenty-nine games into the 2011-12 season, Boston owns a 15-14 record, constantly riding the peaks and valleys. But players are adamant this ride will end on the climb.

As Rivers declared earlier this week, the Celtics know they can beat anybody, yet they also know they can lose to anybody.

On consecutive nights this week, they lost to the hapless Pistons and the championship-caliber Bulls. And while there was plenty to be frustrated about in both defeats, including a middle-quarter lapse that aided Chicago in building a 16-point cushion Thursday night, coach Doc Rivers actually found more positives in the loss to the Bulls.

"I was encouraged by the shots we had; I was just not encouraged that they didn't go in," said Rivers, expressing frustration after holding the Bulls to 39.5 percent shooting (30-of-76 overall), but not being able to capitalize at the offensive end.

Boston isn't much of a silver-lining team, but Rivers did like the fact that his players never rolled over. And it's a reoccurring pattern this season. The Celtics have dug themselves some sizable holes, but have managed to claw their way out.

The final results in those situations haven't always gone their way just yet, but team members are convinced that will change. And maybe, just maybe, when it does, Boston will get out -- and stay out -- of the overall hole it has dug itself as the midpoint of the season nears.

"I was more encouraged that we kinda hung in there [Thursday]," Rivers said. "We stuck together [against the Bulls]. It's been a frustrating year and we just gotta keep fighting through this maze. It's going to turn, OK? And I really believe that.

"We've got some missing parts, too. We just gotta keep hanging in there and I think it'll turn our way. I like our team, I like the way we're starting to play. But we're not winning games."

Thursday's game is a perfect example of Boston's roller-coaster play. The Celtics soared out of the gates, dipped in the second quarter, reaching rock bottom with a 16-point deficit early in the third frame. They slowly climbed, actually taking a brief fourth-quarter lead, only to bottom out again and not be able to turn things around before time ran out.

There's no panic in Boston's locker room, just a vibe that -- eventually -- these inconsistencies will cease.

"We're a team that tries to stay positive as possible," Rondo said. "It's a long season. You just gotta find a way, keep believing. Keep believing in the coaching staff, keep believing in yourself."

The Celtics know the schedule is working against them, Rivers is quick to point out that will change in the postseason. Boston is playing without Brandon Bass (and Kevin Garnett is dinged up), and Rivers thinks they could be real tough to beat if they get healthy when the games matter most.

More than anything, the core of this team has proven it can thrive in the postseason, and it feels like that's what they're hanging their hat on most. That these struggles won't matter if they save their best basketball for May.

"We're making progress," Garnett said. "Each time we step on the floor, man, we're trying to win games, trying to get better. Sometimes you don't get the outcome to be what you want. For the most part though, it's what it is. It's a tough league, man. That's what it is.

"There's no perfect formula to this. But that consistency, we're trying to get that."

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.