Can The Celtics Learn From Losses Like This One?

Sully came up just short. - Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics came up short tonight against the Memphis Grizzlies, but they may have learned a few lessons about the way they need to play going forward.

There are only so many times you can watch the Celtics reinforce the same bad habits before you start to go insane. Every time Jared Sullinger chucks a 3, Jeff Green charges aimlessly into heavy traffic or Avery Bradley tries in vain to dunk on a dude six inches taller than him, it drives you a little farther up the wall.

For the first... oh, I dunno, about 46 minutes of tonight's tilt with the visiting Memphis Grizzlies, these were the maddening Celtics. The ones who made the same boneheaded mistakes they've been making all year, stubbornly playing with fire and getting burned again and again. It was those Celtics who found themselves in a deep hole early - 38-19 midway through the second quarter - and there was no coming back from that.

Not that the C's didn't try. And the funny thing was they didn't change much. Sullinger kept chucking, Bradley kept attacking and Green kept doing his thing. They kept making their same old mistakes, only suddenly they didn't look like mistakes. The shots were a little sharper and the routes to the basket, a little more coordinated. Those three guys ended up combining for 27 points in the game's final 9:15, and the C's went from down 13 with two minutes to play to just three, 96-93, with 14 seconds left.

Sure, the Celtics lost anyway. But that brief comeback in the final minutes indicated something - this team knows how to keep fighting. These guys just play.

"All of them played," coach Brad Stevens said postgame. "All of them played. The willingness to fight is not something that I would necessarily single out as unique, but that should be the way that you go about your business all the time. And it's what, for the most part, this group has done, with very, very few exceptions."

It's true - this Celtic team has shown a penchant for inspired bursts of play here and there. They had a brilliant second quarter to take a halftime lead last week against the Pacers, and another dazzling second frame two weeks earlier in Miami. Even against elite teams, Boston has moments where it looks like a real threat. But as this Memphis loss - a 100-93 final - showed, it's frustrating that the little streaks don't ultimately amount to much.

"That's the fight we've got to have the whole game," Green said. "We got in a hole early in the first quarter. It was great to see us battling, but we can't put ourselves in that position. They just came out aggressive, and our intensity wasn't there. That allowed them to put us on our heels, and that's how they got the early lead."

If nothing else, the Celtics can take losses like this one as learning experiences. They can glean little lessons here and there about what worked and apply them next time. In the case of tonight's ridiculous fourth-quarter rally, the lesson may have been this: Sullinger isn't too shabby of a jump-shooter. The kid may have been 7-for-31 on 3-pointers this season before tonight, a miserable 22.6 percent, but his form is pretty and he's capable of improving. His two big treys tonight - a 24-footer from the right corner with 1:43 left followed by a 26-footer from the top of the key with 1:13 left - were evidence of that.

"I don't think he shoots enough of them," Stevens said. "I've said that all year. The more games he gets under his belt, the more he plays, that shot's going to go in more often than not. Percentage-wise, he's a really good shooter. We were running things for him at the end of that game, to see if we couldn't get him a look."

Added Sullinger: "He constantly tells me to take the open shot. He's always in my ear about shooting the ball. Sometimes I feel comfortable shooting it, sometimes I don't. I think it's just a mindset - I just need to understand that if they're going to give me the shot, I've got to take it."

If the Celtics can keep working in little wrinkles like that Sullinger jumper, nights like tonight can't be considered complete losses. L's in the standings, sure, but the goal of this 2013-14 team was never a championship. This group is just trying to make improvements and prepare for the future.

Maybe someday, those mistakes won't be mistakes at all anymore.

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