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Celtics must make headway

WALTHAM -- Sometimes it takes a player who learned English as a second language to speak the truth, to cut through the spin that comes with a six-game preseason losing streak. Jiri Welsch is such a player, assessing the current state of the Celtics with refreshing honesty. He simply wants to get his point across, and he doesn't care how it sounds when he does.

Asked what was Boston's biggest challenge between now and the season opener Nov. 3, Welsch said, "In our case, it's to get our heads straight, OK?

"Everybody is talking and I have the same opinion that we have a great potential as a team, but we have to be able to have more discipline and be more patient on the court, just be ready to play at every minute of the game because we have moments where we play great for five or 10 minutes, then the next five minutes we're just terrible and making mistakes on offense, defense, everything. We just have to get it straight up here."

Welsch finished his answer by gesturing toward his head, emphasizing that what ails the Celtics at this stage is more mental than physical. Anyone who witnessed the contentious second exhibition game between Boston and Cleveland Monday night and the shouting match between the squads that followed understands the mental hurdles coach Doc Rivers must coax his team to overcome. The Celtics want to be tough, they want to be the "instigators" Red Auerbach constantly mentions, but they don't know how. There exists a not-so-fine line between being effectively physical and tough-minded and being foolishly undisciplined that the Celtics cross to their detriment.

"We've been a team that has taken punches, not literal punches, and we've got to be a team that is as physical or more physical than teams," said Rivers. "I don't mind that. I just think when we do that we have to keep playing. We can't act like that's something different. That's who we have to be every night, and play that way, and be aggressive and attack every night . . . I don't mind guys yapping as long as they play. We just have to be under control. I'm going to leave it at that."

Against the Cavaliers, captain Paul Pierce appeared fired up, in part because he relishes the challenge of competing against LeBron James.

But in the second half, all the trash talk and an alleged spitting incident distracted Pierce. In the fourth quarter, getting in a few good one-liners and encouraging the crowd to boo appeared more important to Pierce than winning the game. While he wouldn't talk about the alleged spitting incident, he did discuss the benefits and drawbacks of being an emotional player.

"We get caught up into the game a little bit," said Pierce. "We need to slow down and think a little bit and we'll be all right. Our emotions get caught up into the game and being a young team, it shows. It's part of maturing. We have a good mix of veterans along with young guys and I think it's part of growing.

"I think the guys sort of woke up [when the game became more heated]. That's what basketball is all about. It's a game of emotions. Just going through the motions, playing a boring game, is no fun for the fans. It's no fun for us as competitors. For a preseason game, I think it's good just to get that kind of feeling and how the regular season is."

The second exhibition game between the Celtics and Cavaliers certainly brought regular-season intensity, and then some. But Rivers cautioned not to read too much into heated preseason exchanges.

Still, it would be easy to see signs of trouble. Pierce, Gary Payton, and Ricky Davis make Boston an emotional bunch. A losing streak like the one the Celtics are on now probably won't bring out the best in the players. Already, there have been indications individuals will try to take it upon themselves to win games when things are not going well. Then frustration can turn ugly.

For now, the Celtics are together in their preseason misery, Payton even counseling Pierce before he spoke to the media after the Monday night game. But if Boston piles up losses during the season, the frustration could be divisive.

The Celtics will play their final exhibition against the Pistons tonight at the FleetCenter at 6 and try to end the preseason on a positive note, though they will have to do so without Payton. The veteran point guard injured his right thumb Monday night and got X-rays yesterday. Regardless of the result, which should be available this morning, Rivers decided to keep him out of the Detroit game and possibly the final week of preseason practice, not wishing to risk further injury to the thumb. Even though he won't be on the court, Payton undoubtedly will try to inspire his teammates in his unique way.

"I told our whole team, `As a team we have to keep our composure,' " said Rivers. "I like the chippiness. Even though it is the exhibition season, I think they should be [ticked] off by losing, but they've got to keep it under control. When a game gets emotional, you can have myself, you can have Knute Rockne yelling on the sideline, once they go, they're gone. My job is to bring them off the floor and get them back in it.

"I don't worry about this group. This is not [a] red flag. I think this is a good group of guys. They're a solid group of guys and a group of guys that is learning how to play hard and intense. I would like to see them play hard and intense all the time. We have lapses. Until we stop [having lapses], we will keep losing." 

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