By A.Sherrod Blakely
INDIANAPOLIS There were plenty of plays that could sum up the kind of night it was for the Boston Celtics.
But none drive the point home more than the uncontested lay-up by Darren Collison with less than a minute to play that essentially sealed the 107-100 victory for the Indiana Pacers
The Celtics were collectively a step slow in rotating on that play, and many others all game.
"We couldn't get a stop all game," said Paul Pierce. "In the most important part of the game, the fourth quarter, we couldn't get a stop right there."
If it were a one-game thing, fine.
Chalk it up to being one of those nights.
But the problems Boston has had, especially defensively, is raising the kind of concerns that no team should be having this late in the season if it's serious about winning a championship.
"It's a weird time to be talking about this," Pierce said. "It's nine games to go in the season. This is the type of stuff you talk about at the beginning of the year. We're about to go into the playoffs. We shouldn't be talking about this stuff."
The mounting losses to teams that are either out of the playoff picture or barely hanging on has created a mixture of disappointing and frustration that seems to be permeating throughout the locker room.
"I'm frustrated when we lose," Pierce acknowledged. "I'm frustrated with the inconsistency we're playing with. It's the little things that frustrate me, things that I know this team can do because we did it all year long. And then we wait until the last 10 games to start regressing."
And that regression is coming at a time when the Celtics (51-22) are in no position to give games away.
Boston's loss, combined with Chicago's loss to Philadelphia keeps the C's two games behind the Bulls for the best record in the East.
However, the Celtics are now tied with Miami for the second-best record in the East. If the two were to finish with the same record, the C's would get the higher seed because they've already won the head-to-head matchup by beating the Heat in each of their first three matchups this season.
But the Celtics have more pressing matters than to worry about their playoff seeding.
First they must make it through the regular season with some semblance of improved play.
And it's no secret that it's the Celtics defense, more than anything else, that has to get better soon.
Despite the changes made in recent weeks to the roster, the Celtics stick to their belief that the foundation for their success is still built upon their play defensively.
"I know we're dealing with different issues here, but we are a defensive team," said Kevin Garnett. "We have to get back to that; start getting back into a rhythm whatever that may be."
Boston also needs to get Rajon Rondo to start playing like the Rajon Rondo we saw at the start of the season who was a dark horse MVP candidate.
After missing Sunday's game at Minnesota because of right pinkie finger injury, Rondo convinced coach Doc Rivers and the medical staff that he was fit to return against the Pacers.
Rondo erupted for 22 points on 9-for-13 shooting to go with 8 assists and 4 rebounds.
"That's how he has to play every night," Rivers said. "He attacked. His speed was a factor. We haven't seen that in a while, and that's terrific."
Not so terrific of late has been the Celtics defense, especially when it comes to defending the lane.
Although Boston had as many points (42) in the paint as the Pacers, there was no mistaking the dominating impact that Indiana 7-footer Roy Hibbert had on the Celtics and the game as a whole.
He finished with a game-high 26 points, benefiting heavily from the few Celtics big man available, getting into foul trouble.
Both Garnett and Nenad Krstic were in foul trouble most of the night, which limited their impact on the game and, even more important, the amount of time Rivers could use them.
Foul trouble. Injuries. New guys. Old guys. New roles.
All have been factors of late in the Celtics' late-season swoon.
But in terms of their concern level, the Celtics' struggles defensively has been arguably the most difficult challenge for this team to stomach - and as of late, get past.
"It's frustrating, for lack of a better word," Garnett said of the team's defensive problems. "We put ourselves here. Just like we put ourselves here, we'll take ourselves out of it."