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Where Is The Mental Toughness?

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The Celtics have a stranglehold on the Atlantic Division, up seven games on the decidedly mediocre Raptors. Despite injuries (varying in seriousness) to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rasheed Wallace, Rajon Rondo, Marquis Daniels, and Glen Davis, the Celtics are still only 2 and a half games behind the Cavaliers. Considering the context, it doesn’t seem like such a bad situation, right? Wrong, at least according to Doc:

For the most part our effort’s been pretty good, til of late. Our focus is struggling of late. With all the injuries and distractions we’ve had, I would take the record, I just wouldn’t take the way we’re playing. If someone had told me (before the season) with all our injuries this would be our record, I’d take it. Having said that I just don’t like the way we’re playing.-transcribed from video

 This is becoming a trend for Doc Rivers recently, and honestly it’s spreading. Ever since the Left Coast road trip (a solid 0-3 effort) after Christmas, the effort has seemed lackluster, especially against top tier, mentally tough teams. In that time we’ve gone 4-4, but the effort level just hasn’t been there the vast majority of the time. Along with a blowout win against the hapless New Jersey Nets, the wins have consisted of an overtime win over the Heat (20-19), and two competitive games against the Raptors (21-20), making the wins against teams combining for a .367 winning record.

The losses have been far more telling. The Celts have fallen to Dallas (27-14), Chicago (18-31), and twice against Atlanta (26-14).  The Chicago loss wasn’t particularly close the entire game, but the Dallas and two Atlanta losses both shared a common trait: lack of mental toughness. In all three games the Celtics led going into the third quarter, and in all three games the Celtics were absolutely run out of the building down the stretch, the worst of it in the third. Doc, sums it up, after the recent Dallas loss:

I thought we had twenty four minutes of focus, and it’s hard to win a basketball game that way against a quality team.-transcribed from video

It's not just those three losses either. Coming out of halftime, even leading, the third quarter is still by far the worst basketball the team plays all game. If you don't believe me, check the stats here. (thanks to Roy Hobbs for the heads up)

1st and 2nd quarters, the Celtics outscore opponents consistently for the first 24, by a margin of roughly 6 points heading into the third. After that, it's a near wash.

The lack of focus is a disturbing trend that has become blatantly obvious in the recent games. A significant sign that this wasn’t just a rough spot came during the second Atlanta game, after Doc got thrown out. The Celtics played with their heads down the rest of the entire night, instead of rallying behind Doc’s emotional exit (like Doc probably assumed would happen). Tommy went on and on about the officiating, which don’t get me wrong, it was terrible, but the good strong teams don’t need to blame losses on refs.

Then, before the Dallas game, Doc offered this insight:

"It's a concern, I don't know if we've lost the edge or not, but we have to be better at home, and you can't blame those (losses) on injuries because (for) most of them we were healthy.- ESPN

This all adds up to a picture that is a lot more disheartening than a few losses here or there. The Celtics, from day one, have been ‘THE veteran team’, the guys that don’t rattle mentally, even if they’re a step slower laterally (Sheed!), or aren’t as durable as they used to be (Garnett). That, more than having the best defensive player in basketball, or a cold blooded killer beyond the arc is the one thing that I as a fan have always believed would see us through. It seems like we’ve lost that lately. Consider the following from our own JimmyT after the Dallas loss:

Do the Celtics lack a killer instinct? Up nine points going into the third quarter, one would think this team would pounce on the Mavericks and prevent them from getting back into the game. Instead, Rivers states that they had the opposite attitude coming into the second half. How? If you're the Celtics, you need a big win at home like this. They are halfway through the season, and with no important home wins to show for it. - Celticsblog Recap

Or this from Ball Don’t Lie’s Kelly Dwyer:

The Celtics just seemed to completely abandon its sets, nobody was really moving off the ball, nobody was really looking for those second and third and fourth and ninth options. Boston really does have that many chances on offense with certain sets, but against the Mavs, the C's just quit. Not a total mail-in, but atypical nonetheless for Doc Rivers' crew. And, nearly needless to say, Doc was pretty ticked about it. - Ball Don't Lie

You got a glimpse of that during the Dallas game actually, here is a transcribed version of Cheryl Miller’s 3rd quarter interview (thanks to Celticsblog Forums esteemed member Drucci):

Cheryl : "Well coach obviously you didn't look too happy at the end of the 3rd quarter. What bothered you?"

Doc : "Well, it would be nice to get back on defense a couple of times. You know, everybody is gambling with the rebounds, they are frustrated because Dallas is basically... kicking our butt and they want to blame the refs. We gotta play basketball."

Cheryl : "Well, Damp had no points in the first half. He was big in the 3rd. How are you going to stop him in the 4th [not sure about "stop him" there but I can't hear the right words]?"

Doc : "Yeah, they're just more physical than us Cheryl, we're supposed to be the big bad Celtics and right now Dallas is playing more physical, they're tougher and they're mentally tougher right now."

So where is this all going? Have the Celtics lost their ‘edge’? Their toughness? Their Mojo?

Well, I don’t know. The one solace we still have is that the Celtics are in fact a veteran team, with everyone sans Daniels, Williams, Giddens and Walker all possessing championship rings. The season is only halfway over, and we’re about to see the return of the Celtics emotional, spiritual, and most most most importantly defensive leader, Kevin Garnett.

It’s like Doc said, given the injuries I’ll take the record. And maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but to throw one more quote at you;

I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do. - Joe Walsh