BOSTON -- As his team chipped away at what was once a double-digit deficit, Celtics coach Doc Rivers turned to his staff and said the Celtics would win the game, but there would be nothing happy about it.
"And I was wrong," Rivers shrugged after the Magic hung on for a
83-78 triumph Friday night at the TD Garden.
To be fair, Rivers was right in one respect: The Celtics truly had nothing to be happy about. From a pathetic first quarter in which the visiting Magic built a 16-point cushion, to Boston's abysmal 34.5 percent shooting from the field overall, to a crunch-time offense that lacked any semblance of continuity, the Celtics were generally a mess on the court.
"I just don't like how we're playing offense or defense right now,"
said Rivers, and since this isn't football and there's no special teams, that doesn't leave much to be happy about.
It was billed as "Game 8" as the Celtics and Magic clashed for the first time since last year's epic seven-game series that helped propel Orlando to the NBA Finals. Only this time the Celtics had a healthy Kevin Garnett, and that was supposed to give Boston an edge.
Instead, the Magic picked up where they left off after running the Celtics out of their own gym with a lopsided 101-82 triumph in Game 7 in May. Boston trailed by 11 little more than five minutes in and was held to a season-low 13 first-quarter points.
How bad was the start? Had Orlando's Mickael Pietrus not had a 3- pointer waved off in the final seconds of the frame due to a traveling violation, he would have finished the quarter 5-of-5 overall for 14 points and outscored Boston, which connected on just 5 of 24 shots for 13 points.
"That's something we need to do a better job of as starters," Paul Pierce said. "I think it's kind of getting repetitive. Against a good team, we got to defend for all four quarters. The slippage that we had in the first quarter is about being mentally and physically ready at the start of games."
As has been the case numerous times this season, Boston's second team helped make it a game, and it was a one-possession contest coming out of halftime. But the Celtics starters again struggled and Orlando was able to push its lead to double figures for a second time.
Boston clawed back yet again, but one play summed up the night. Garnett got a wide-open look from the baseline with little more than a minute to go and his potential game-tying jumper clanged off the iron.
Boston did not have a quality possession the rest of the way.
"I think everybody on this team, we don't take losing well," Garnett said. "I know the two guys up here [himself and Pierce] definitely don't. We're trying to figure it out. We're going to grind through this. We gotta work to get this team where we need to be."
After a 6-0 start, the Celtics have lost four of their past seven. Rivers admitted that even if Boston had escaped with a win, he still would have been unhappy with the effort.
One glance at the final plus/minus stats shows why. Point guard Rajon Rondo, benched for much of the fourth quarter, finished minus-12, while Garnett (minus-11) and Pierce (minus-10) weren't much better.
Plagued by foul trouble, including a costly technical, Kendrick Perkins sat out much of the second half and finished a team-worst minus-13.
"We're not a 48-minute team yet," Rivers said. "We'll get there, and we're going to keep working on it. But I don't think it's as easy as saying we've just got to get off to a better start. I don't think that's the answer. It's clear that we do, but to me it's the [entire] game."
Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.