ATLANTA -- At the risk of investing too much significance in one game less than a month into the schedule, let it be known the Celtics' season reached a critical juncture last night in a 120-117 loss to the Hawks.
This has little to do with Atlanta recording its first win of the season, though the hapless Hawks put the Celtics' problems in sharper relief. It is one thing to struggle amid the din of a packed Palace of Auburn Hills, quite another to do the same in front of a crowd at Philips Arena generously estimated at 14,288.
An embarrassing loss in Atlanta should force the Celtics (4-7) to figure out just want kind of team they want to be this season. One plagued by inconsistent effort in all areas or one committed to working through a long list of problems.
Atlanta worked harder and played tougher than Boston. For a second straight night, the Celtics fell victim to turnovers (18 for 23 points). They also gave Atlanta second and third chances at the basket on a regular basis. Zaza Pachulia dominated the glass with 13 rebounds (eight offensive). And the Boston defense is officially in disarray, allowing the Hawks to shoot a season-high 56 percent and record a season-high point total.
Atlanta's Al Harrington led all scorers with a season-high 34 points. The Hawks took the Celtics off the dribble with ease. Whenever Boston came close to making a defensive stop, someone lost his man. The Hawks scored on all the critical possessions, particularly in the fourth quarter, while the Celtics couldn't even execute out of timeouts.
Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce, and Ricky Davis can talk about experience and chemistry, but the Celtics showed they have even more fundamental problems. At this point, they need to show up and compete come game time. There are no excuses for 7-footer Mark Blount grabbing one rebound and committing five turnovers in almost 25 minutes. There are no excuses for turning the ball over on bad pass after bad pass and traveling violation after traveling violation. There are no excuses for poor shot selection as individuals try to win the game by themselves.
''This is the time when you'll find out who has character on your teams," said Rivers. ''The guys who are griping and crying to [reporters], those are the guys with no character. The guys who stick together and support their teammates and the whole team are the guys with character and the guys who will play."
Although the Celtics did not perform well in any area last night, they still entered the fourth quarter tied, 96-96. Up until then, they led by as many as 7 points and trailed by as many as 7. But after Atlanta took the lead (99-98) on a free throw by Salim Stoudamire with 10:20 remaining in the fourth, Boston would never regain an edge. Every time the Celtics closed in, they committed a turnover. Davis dribbled the ball into Orien Greene with the Celtics trailing, 107-106. Blount was called for an offensive foul with the Hawks ahead, 111-110. Raef LaFrentz threw the ball to the Atlanta bench when he was aiming for Davis at the 3-point arc with Boston down, 115-112.
Miscues like that were commonplace throughout the game, and more difficult to avoid in the fourth quarter after Dan Dickau found himself in foul trouble and eventually fouled out with 2:30 left. Greene, who started in place of injured point guard Delonte West, was simply not ready to lead the team down the stretch.
When asked if toughness was an issue for the Celtics, Pierce (33 points) said, ''Right now, it is. We mentally break down when teams make a run at us, instead of staying together. The toughness plays are the ones we're losing all the time, when we need a stop, when we need a rebound. That all comes down to mental toughness. If they sold mental toughness in the store, I would purchase it for everybody. But they don't. It has to come from within."
If it is there in the first place.