Loss to Suns will be a learning tool

BOSTON -- These Celtics are competitors, so Friday's first loss of the season stung.

But these Celtics are also humans, and, as has been noted numerous times already this young campaign, an aging set of humans at that. So, forced to open the season with a grueling slate of eight games in 12 days, the Green set a simple goal: Survive.

Sure, it doesn't exactly sound like the rally cry of a team with aspirations of challenging the 1995-96 Bulls' NBA single-season record of 72 wins. But this team is all about setting realistic goals. That's why it fearlessly hung a blank banner in the gymnasium inside its practice facility in Waltham, ripe for adding details of an 18th world championship.

Losses like Friday's 110-103 defeat at the hands of the Phoenix Suns are going to happen, even to championship-caliber teams. The Celtics have resigned themselves to the fact that they will learn and grow from every game this season and grade their performance at various checkpoints.

Checkpoint No. 1 won't come until after Saturday's game in New Jersey.

"We're tired right now, but, [shoot], they are, too," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "[The Suns have] been on the road for -- I don't know how long. But we've got one more in this stretch of eight in 12 [days]. You know, eight games in 12 days to start the season is brutal. But everybody's going to go through this stretch at some point; we just happen to go through it early. And we knew when we looked at the schedule that this is going to be a tough stretch of games, and let's see how many games we can squeeze out and win."

After tipping their caps to the Suns and their blistering-hot 13 of 24 shooting (54.2 percent) from beyond the 3-point line Friday, the Celtics then hung those hats on the fact that they were decidedly outplayed, were as ice cold as Phoenix was red hot, and yet still had a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter.

But unlike Wednesday night in Minnesota, Boston's hallmark defense wasn't there. For the first time this season, its bench couldn't hold the fort when the starters desperately needed rest.

For the first time this season, the Celtics got a taste of their own medicine.

They don't like that taste. But Boston took that medicine and it expects to bounce back stronger because of it.

"It is a long way to go, but don't take anything away from what we've done," said Kevin Garnett. "We've created that 6-0, just like we lost tonight. It is what it is. We fought hard for those wins just like we fought hard tonight. Unfortunately, it didn't come out our way, but the effort is there and I say it's a work in progress."

As much of a boost as the bench additions of Rasheed Wallace, Marquis Daniels, and Shelden Williams have been for Boston, the team can also admit that they've been winning with a bit of smoke and mirrors thus far. With such a hectic start to the season, Boston hasn't even had a chance to install much of the offensive and defensive playbook it will utilize this season.

These Celtics are winging it, but you can hardly tell.

Should Boston depart New Jersey with a win Saturday night, it will emerge from this harrowing stretch 7-1. Average that out over 82 games and what do you get?

Seventy-two wins.

Imagine the upside once the Celtics get a chance to teach the newcomers the team's terminology, and to work on the chemistry that only the practice environment can bring.

"Guys getting terminology down, flow -- we're still understanding,"
said Garnett. "There are times when I haven't even played with Marquis [Daniels] and Eddie [House], same with Paul [Pierce]. Different lineups, different matchups, you know it's going to be like that and it's going to be a while before that whole chemistry, that flow, comes through. It is a work in progress. All in all, when we're on the floor, whoever is on the floor, we're going hard trying to win the game and playing the right way. So it's in the right direction."

Consider this: The Celtics started last season 8-1 before seemingly finding that chemistry. After a loss to Denver, Boston embarked on a 19-game winning streak to improve to 27-2. There isn't a player in the Celtics' locker room who doesn't believe that's possible again.

And there's a reason no team has ever won more than 72 games (and why the best record in Celtics' history is 68-14). These types of games happen. Even Suns coach Alvin Gentry seemed thrilled to escape with a win.

"Obviously, it's a good win against a real good-quality team," said Gentry. "We still have different goals than they do. Our goal is to try to get back to where we were a few years ago. Their goal is to try to win the championship. They're a great team. They're going to have a ton of wins and they've got great players. We played well tonight."

The Celtics know they didn't play well. They know they need to make adjustments. But they're in survival mode. After Saturday's game against the Nets, they'll emerge and it might be the rest of the NBA that goes into survival mode for the next seven months.

"They know that because of the amount of games that we've had, it's impossible to practice," Rivers said of his players. "They can see the slippage. We've showed it on film. We talked about it. The last three games it's all we've been talking about, but it's tough to do something about it until you can get some real practice time. And we'll get that on Monday. We still got [Saturday] to play and then we finally get a day off of full rest, and then we can get to building."

Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.