WALTHAM, Mass. -- With a 9-8 record, the Boston Celtics own their fair share of problems, whether it be pick-and-roll defense, inconsistent rebounding or an inability to finish quarters or halves the way they would like to.
But for all of the tangible, on-court issues Boston has battled, the mental aspect of the game has come into greater focus ever since their skirmish last Wednesday with the Brooklyn Nets, during which Rajon Rondo shoved Kris Humphries after he fouled Kevin Garnett hard in midair. Rondo was ejected and later suspended, and though it was a physical incident, all everyone could talk about after were the mindsets of both Rondo and the team.
Rondo was given his two-game ban, but the team didn't have the same benefit of sitting around and thinking about things. So Doc Rivers fired off comments about other teams' perceiving the Celtics as soft, before calling for a more "forceful" effort moving forward.
The Celtics have since acknowledged that even before the ball is tipped, the game begins upstairs, between the ears, and that the right mindset needs to be established before each and every outing.
"I mean, it's our job. I don't understand," said Paul Pierce after Tuesday's practice. "We understand what our weaknesses are, we understand it in practice, we talk about it all the time. So we've just got to implant it in our head night in and night out, this is what we have to do.
"Maybe if we look at games where we've done it well and say, 'You know, we're capable of doing it.' It's just about having that mindset and knowing going into the game, this is what needs to be done. We have to be a more physical team, we have to rebound, we've got to defend, in order to win games."
"It's not hard. We've just got to do it," Jeff Green added following Monday's practice. "We've just got to prepare ourselves before the game and just try to be as focused and ready as possible."
The team appeared to take Rivers' words to heart. In their first two games following their coach's remarks, the Celtics crushed the Portland Trailblazers at home, and the very next night, jumped out to a 17-0 lead on the Bucks in Milwaukee.
Though Boston eventually fell by three to the Bucks, that opening quarter was a stark contrast to what had been on display in the weeks prior. It was more than just the physical execution of the defensive stops and the scoring drives; it was the noticeable determination behind those actions.
That 17-0 start has a lot to do with the Celtics being so positive right now. Sure, they lost, but they also finally saw what they wanted to see: a spirited effort in which the intent to win was there from start to finish.
"Overall, the last two games, I like where we are at," Rivers said. "But we've got to continue to do it. We've yet to be consistent, in my opinion. You can be consistent and lose a game, and I think Milwaukee was an example of that. I thought we played with the right spirit, but we just have to have that consistent effort. You think of those two games, today's practice was extremely hard, as far as the way they went -- it wasn't long. We've got to get that mentality."
But Rivers is realistic in his expectations. He knows his players are human and no matter how much he tries to drill the importance of mindset into his players' heads, sometimes off nights just happen.
"You're not [going to have that effort for all 82 games], but you can have your way of playing," Rivers said. "We haven't established that yet. So once you get that, you're still going to have some flat nights, that's human nature, I can accept that. But you have to prepare yourself every night to have a great night, and if you come out flat, well, that's life."
Rajon Rondo agreed that the right mindset is important and that preparation must come from every player on the team.
"The nights some guys don't have it, that's when the bench guys have to step up and other role players have to step up," Rondo offered. "It's difficult to do it 82 games, but we're professionals, we get paid to do this, and it's not a difficult job. It's just going out and having the right mindset and taking care of your body."
The loss to Brooklyn might have been the wake-up call Boston needed, and Saturday's loss to Milwaukee might have been the necessary evidence of what the right mindset can help to achieve. If the Celtics can establish their opening-quarter effort against the Bucks as their way of playing, a spike in the win column might not be far behind.
"I think we're doing a better job," Courtney Lee said. "Even after we lost against Milwaukee, Doc touched point on you can see our team getting better, you can see us playing for each other out there, trying to make the extra plays, and that's going to be our identity on the defensive end, covering for each other. And on the offensive end, just attacking and moving the ball around."
Maybe it was just the promise of returning to the court on Wednesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, or maybe it was feeling more confident after seeing his team play well without him, but some of Rondo's remarks on Tuesday hinted at a renewed vigor for the Celtics moving forward.
"I want to get better. I want to run off eight or nine games straight," Rondo said. "It starts in practice and it starts with staying in the game, so I just want to go out there and give it all for my teammates and try to get some wins.
"We've got to get this show on the road. We've got to have a great December. November is behind us. I think we're 9-8, but it's a new month and I'm ready to go."