It was hardly a reassuring statement, but Mike James felt the need to address what he figured many outside the Celtics' locker room might be thinking.
"We can't throw the towel in," said James. "We can't throw the towel in now. There's still a lot of basketball to be played."
The Celtics have reached the point where they must constantly remind themselves to stay positive. James, along with many of his teammates and interim coach John Carroll, tried to do just that last night at the FleetCenter.
But in light of the way Boston played against Atlanta, it was a tough act to pull off. Despite squandering a 17-point, third-quarter lead, the Hawks hung tough in the fourth quarter and earned a 100-96 victory. Atlanta won consecutive games for the first time this season, while Boston had its season-high losing streak stretch to six games. The Celtics are still searching for their first win under Carroll, who looked for bright spots in the bad stretch.
"This is going to sound really strange, but I'm just really proud of how our guys played," said Carroll, again borrowing a page from the kumbaya coaching guide. "I know we've lost quite a few games in a row, but I was just really impressed with the way they came back in the game. I know we were really bad at the end of the first half, and that probably was the most critical time of the game.
"But I'll tell you, when you're losing and a team can respond like that and play that hard and play that together [in the second half], it's just something to be very proud of as a coach of the team."
After falling behind, 58-43, through two quarters, it would have been hard for Boston not to improve in the second half. The Celtics should have been embarrassed by their play in the closing minutes of the second quarter, if not downright ashamed. The crowd of 15,874 certainly let the Celtics know they were disgusted with booing that has become all too familiar at the FleetCenter this season.
During the final 3 minutes 44 seconds of the second quarter, the Celtics had a 1-point lead (43-42) turn into 15-point deficit. That kind of collapse is difficult to imagine against any opponent, but even more so against the Hawks, who have the second-worst record (17-34) in the Central Division. But after James (14 points) hit a 19-footer, Atlanta reeled off 16 straight points to close the quarter.
The run started when Shareef Abdur-Rahim fed Jason Terry for a 17-footer. Next, Abdur-Rahim found Dion Glover for a 3-pointer. But Boston had yet to see the worst from the perimeter. That came with the Celtics trailing by 9 points (52-43) with less than five seconds remaining in the half.
Glover (16 points) found Stephen Jackson (23 points) for a 3-pointer with 4.2 seconds remaining. Brandon Hunter made a bad inbounds pass for the third Boston turnover during the Atlanta run. Jackson stole the ball and promptly stepped back to hit another 3-pointer. The run happened so fast neither coach could remember any of the details. Carroll described the spurt as "bang, bang, bang."
Although Boston mounted a serious third-quarter comeback with a 20-4 run and closed within 1 point at 66-65, the Hawks' second-quarter spurt effectively won the game. By the time the Celtics reached the fourth quarter, they only had enough energy to briefly sustain a 1-point lead.
"What you're really seeing right now is a lot of the characteristics of a young team," said Paul Pierce (28 points). "We're going to fight and battle. We're going to be in the game, but it just seems like in the fourth quarter we've got to learn how to win games . . . I'm trying to help the young guys understand the fourth quarter is a whole different ballgame."
With 12 seconds remaining and trailing, 98-96, the Celtics had one final chance. They ran a flare screen with Pierce serving as a decoy. After making the inbounds pass, Ricky Davis (11 points) got the ball back from Walter McCarty and drove to the basket. But Davis had his layup attempt blocked by Theo Ratliff, who finished with a season-high seven rejections. Davis attempted a desperation putback, but that was blocked by Abdur-Rahim. The Hawks had 11 blocks in the game.
"It's human nature to be antsy to get a win," said Carroll. "But I'm not frustrated. I asked them to do something [in the second half], and they did it."
The Celtics just didn't do enough to get the win.