By A. Sherrod Blakely
BOSTON Beating the Charlotte Bobcats should have been easy.
Stephen Jackson (hamstring) was out. Tyrus Thomas (ribs) was out. Gerald Wallace is with the Portland Trail Blazers now.
This is a Charlotte team that's bad on so many levels.
And the Celtics did what the Celtics have done far too often against bad teams - they played down to their level.
"I always say it, you screw around with the game and the game will screw around with you," said Boston's head coach Doc Rivers.
That's exactly what happened on Friday, as the Charlotte Bobcats went on a 16-0 run in the fourth quarter that set the stage for an 83-81 come-from-behind win.
Boston's Ray Allen had a chance to steal the victory for the Celtics, but his 3-pointer from the corner in front of the Bobcat's bench was off the mark.
The loose ball wound up in the hands of Kevin Garnett.
But his hurried shot hit the back of the rim, and took a high bounce outside the rim as time expired.
It was a fitting finish for the Celtics, who looked as though they took the banged up Bobcats for granted.
"Our attitude, shocks me," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who acknowledged he can't recall the last time he was as disturbed about his team's play as he is right now. "We're just not ready to win any games now the way we play, the way our approach is to basketball games."
Friday's loss was Boston's second straight, both at home against teams that aren't anywhere close to being considered elite-caliber opponents.
But against the Celtics, well, that's a different story.
After the game, the Bobcats - losers of four in a row and 10 of their last 12 prior to Friday night - celebrated what was arguably their biggest win of the season.
"Everyone was so elated," said Charlotte coach and ex-Celtic, Paul Silas. "It's just kind of indescribable, the feeling that we had to beat a team like Boston who is a great team. We hung in there and got the win."
Meanwhile, all the Celtics did was hang their hands, most of the night, as they continue to lose a grip on the No. 1 seed in the East to the fast-charging Chicago Bulls whose control in the East grows with every slip-up by the Celtics.
There are plenty of areas to point to in explaining the team's struggles lately.
Boston's lack of ball movement certainly stands out.
Against Charlotte, Boston had just 15 assists as a team.
There have been nights when Rajon Rondo has that many or more assists by himself.
And while players talked about the team's struggles defensively down the stretch, that's a hard case to make when you give up just 83 points.
Rivers has a theory as to what the problem is.
"I just think we've become very, very selfish," he said. "Not just as far as trying to get our own, but everything is about how we're playing individually. Instead of how the team is playing. You can see it; a guy struggles, he pouts ... everything is 'me, me, me on our team right now."
Paul Pierce believes the team lacks a sense of urgency right now.
"It has to come from all of us," Pierce said. " One player can come out here and say it and "hoo-rah" around the locker room, but it has to come from everybody."
Ray Allen believe the team is over-thinking the game.
"We've just got to go to work," Allen said. "We just need to go play basketball."
Regardless of what's at the root of the Celtics problems, all are in agreement that something has to change, and quickly.
Because this team began the season with visions of making another title run and bringing home Banner 18.
Despite their play of late, that dream remains alive and well.
Rivers has often been credited with his ability to connect with players, and get more out of them than they possibly knew they had to offer.
But what's going on now, is different.
This isn't about X's and O's, or some big, as Pierce would put it, "hoo-rah" speech.
The NBA is a player's league.
And in times like this, they - not the coach, not Danny Ainge, not Celtics Nation - will have to dig themselves out of this malaise they're in.
"I've used it before, but sometimes you have to find your way," Rivers said. "The guys have to. They have to be honest with each other first though. Until that happens, we are going to have these results."