Posted Dec 4 2009 3:24PM
Every so often Doc Rivers gets a reminder, like when he takes a peek at the standings.
"Yeah, I had a friend of come up to me the other night and say, 'Stop whining,' " Rivers remembered, laughing.
If you hang around the Boston Celtics, you get the feeling they're drifting with no paddles in a leaky canoe that was headed over a waterfall. Instead, they're floating along, tied with Orlando for the best record in the Eastern Conference.
That's the trouble with being the Celtics. Everything is relative. The outside world sees the 15-4 record. From the inside, that record doesn't yet measure up to the past two seasons.
Back in 2007, when the Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce first came together, Boston sprinted out of the blocks 8-0 and 17-2 and rarely looked back on its way to the franchise's 17th NBA championship.
A year ago, the Celtics were also 17-2 at the same point in the season, on their way to a sizzling 27-2 start that had them thinking back-to-back titles ... until Kevin Garnett's knee problems flared up.
Now it's not that the Celtics aren't winning, but the way they're winning.
"We haven't played well," Rivers said. "I'd have taken our record before the season if you told me that. But in our minds we know that there's a better level for us and we've shown it in a quarter here and there. We just have not been a team that's been able to put it together for 48 minutes yet. I don't think we have that 48-minute focus and we may not get that for a while and that's fine."
So even after the Celtics rolled out of San Antonio with a six-game winning streak and their first real statement-type victory since the season opener in Cleveland, they want more.
"There are still things we need to do to come together," said Kendrick Perkins. "You get the feeling that there is still something missing, another attitude, another gear, something."
Two years ago, in that championship season, the Celtics were like a runaway locomotive, smashing through anything that got in their way. Of their 66 wins in 2007-08, 45 were by 10 or more points and 23 by 20 or more points. That Celtics team won 29 of 32 games by New Years Day and simply overwhelmed their opponents with defense.
Now, while Garnett continues to work his way back from offseason knee surgery, these Celtics aren't able to zoom away for victories as much. Maybe it's because much of the offseason talk was about the depth the Celtics added by signing Rasheed Wallace and Marquis Daniels. Maybe it was Wallace's preseason proclamation that the team was capable of making a run at the NBA's all-time best regular season record of 72-10 by Michael Jordan's 1995-96 Bulls.
"We're working on getting things together," Wallace said. "We ain't there yet, but that doesn't mean we ain't gonna get there."
Said Garnett: "It will come. It will come. But at the same time, this team is not the same team from two years ago. We have some different guys and maybe we'll have a little bit of a different personality. Right now, we don't have that big wave coming at you."
Right now, they are less tsunami hitting the beach than flood waters quietly rising up over the riverbank.
A cause for concern is that the Celtics already have lost three home games -- to Phoenix, Atlanta and Orlando. Two years ago, they didn't lose their third home game until Jan. 12. Last season, the Celtics didn't suffer lose No. 3 at home until Feb. 5.
Boston has been unable at times to close out games without a struggle. They led the Spurs by 11 early in the fourth quarter Thursday, but let them close the gap to just four on two occasions in the last three minutes.
Yet Boston has been unbeaten over the last two weeks and tries to complete a 4-0 road trip Friday night in Oklahoma City.
"We know that it's a work in progress, that it takes a season to get ready for the playoffs," Rivers said. "You have to go through the season and you have to go through the work. There are no shortcuts to it. You have to go through the practices to get better to find out who you are. I thought that two years ago that team understood that perfectly. They were willing to go through the monotony of the drills and the practices.
"I thought last year we didn't really have that. I said that early and you could see it. We were a team playing for more than that. We were a team playing for agendas, a lot of stuff."
Rivers can see hope on the horizon for the Celtics.
"I do think this year's team has the mindset again. Everyone's playing their role. They know what we have to do. I don't think we've played with the urgency of two years ago yet. They kind of know that it's December and that's fine, as long as we do the work in practices and don't fall into bad habits. That's something coaches have to live through. It's tough. It's a struggle to watch on a lot of nights. It can be hard to suck that up sometimes."
Yet it's easier to swallow when you look at the Celtics at the top of the standings.
"I know, I know," said a smiling Rivers with a shrug. "Stop whining."
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.
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