CLEVELAND - The Celtics have a four-game losing streak and appear to have lost some confidence, along with their ability to dominate the opposition. But captain Paul Pierce insists the swagger has not turned into a stagger.
"We're good, man, I'm telling you the truth, the God's honest truth," Pierce said after a 98-83 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers last night. "We talk after every game. We stay in the locker room after a loss and we talk about what we need to do better. The mood is real positive. That's our strength and that will continue to be our strength and that's what makes us strong. We know we are going to get through this tough stretch."
The Celtics (29-9) have lost seven of nine games since Dec. 25 and dropped their fourth in a row for the first time since the 2006-07 season. Cleveland (29-6) extended its home record to 19-0 and boosted its lead atop the Eastern Conference to 1 1/2 games over the Celtics.
"We just talked about what we could have done defensively better," Pierce said. "As long as we continue to talk and stay positive, we'll be all right. Nobody's happy. You start thinking about those little things, but the strength of the team is we're going to stay together. Everybody is able to accept criticism and we leave it here in the locker room and move on to the next game. That was our strength last year and that will be our strength. It's still a long season. We won 19 games in a row and we know what we're capable of. So we stay positive and talk it out."
The Celtics, who play the Raptors tomorrow in Toronto and Monday in Boston, also have a four-game road losing streak and have not won in Cleveland since 2004.
Pierce matched up with LeBron James from the beginning last night and got off to a strong defensive start. But the rest of the Cavaliers set the tone, with Cleveland taking a 10-point lead on 72.2 percent shooting in the first quarter. The Celtics cut the deficit to 52-49 early in the second half, but James scored 23 of his 38 points in taking control after halftime.
The Celtics absorbed some of Cleveland's best figurative punches, as well as various other body blows, in the opening quarter. The Cavaliers took a 33-23 lead, the most first-quarter points by a Celtic opponent this season, on 13-of-18 shooting, including four dunks in half-court sets.
But the Cavalier reserves started the next quarter with five misses, including a blown dunk by J.J. Hickson, allowing the Celtics to cut the deficit to 34-29 with 8:22 remaining in the half.
Kendrick Perkins converted his first four attempts, then was fouled while shooting, the Celtics calling a timeout and Perkins receiving treatment on his left shoulder from trainer Ed Lacerte and massage therapist Vlad Shulman with 3:17 remaining in the first quarter. Perkins then made 1 of 2 free throws. Rajon Rondo went down from a Hickson challenge, holding his jaw, just before the first-quarter buzzer.
James did not convert from the field for the first 7:16 but concluded the quarter with 9 points. Pierce scored only once in the opening quarter, on a fast-break dunk following Rondo's steal from James with 35 seconds remaining, and finished with 11 points.
The Celtics' commitment to defending began paying off early in the second half, but the Cavaliers continued to extend their lead.
"The biggest stretch was when it was a 5-point game and we had three fast breaks in a row and came up zero on three-on-ones and four-on-twos," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "You know, in our league if you miss on a fast break, it's 2 points the other way. That was the difference in the game. It was over after that."
Kevin Garnett (18 points, 15 rebounds) extended a 14-3 Celtic run over two quarters, cutting the deficit to 52-49 with 8:06 remaining in the third. But the Celtics failed to score on three successive possessions. James's 3-point play, following a Ray Allen fast-break miss and a Rondo failed follow, made it 64-56 with 2:35 to go. James converted two 3-point plays, two other drives, and hit a 25-footer in the third and added 10 points in the final quarter, departing after his two free throws gave the Cavaliers a 90-71 lead with 4:14 remaining.
"You have to be able to take away some things, and we pretty much gave him whatever he wanted," Pierce said of James. "You have to give him this and take away this, and we didn't do either.
"We're going to see them again. They are playing great at home. We put this behind us and move on. You never want to lose, we never had a three- or four-game losing streak, so it's definitely frustrating, because we know what we are capable of. We're not a team that's going to make excuses, so we just have to go out and get the job done. We're going to get everybody's best punch and we just have to be ready for it. We were ready for it early in the season and we have to continue to be ready for it night in and night out.
"This was one of those games where momentum was a factor. We turned the ball over at crucial stages when we cut the lead. We didn't give ourselves a chance when we were getting back in the game."