By A.Sherrod Blakely
BOSTON The Boston Celtics have been a no-excuse team all season.
Injuries be damned, finding a way to win was still the primary mission.
But the more you watch this beat-up Celtics team play, it's clear that the injuries are starting to catch up with them.
The C's are good enough and deep enough to beat most teams with a short-handed roster.
However, victories against the league's elite teams are a lot tougher to come by with a patchwork lineup, which was exactly what the Celtics had to work with in a 92-86 loss Thursday night to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Boston came into the game with just 10 players healthy.
Among those unable to play were Marquis Daniels (bruised spinal cord); Semih Erden (right adductor strain); Jermaine O'Neal (left knee surgery); Shaquille O'Neal (right Achilles); and Delonte West (right wrist).
The C's didn't even get to halftime before their roster of healthy bodies was reduced to nine.
Nate Robinson suffered a right knee bruise after less than four minutes of action, and is scheduled to have an MRI performed on Friday.
One of the strengths of the Celtics has been their ability to play through adversity.
Most nights, it's not a problem.
A 14-4 run in the second quarter brought the Lakers within striking distance. A fast start by Kobe Bryant put the Celtics on their heels and they were never able to recover and regain control of the game.
"Mentally we were not a very good team and usually we are," said C's coach Doc Rivers. "I didn't think we fought hard enough through adversity, and we're great at that usually."
Fighting through tough times becomes even more daunting when the number of healthy bodies continues to dwindle away.
"It definitely hurts when you don't have the normal guys come off the bench to kind of spell you," said Paul Pierce. "Certain guys played extended minutes, but that's no excuse."
Maybe not, but it does provide an explanation for why the Celtics are struggling for the first time all season - they've lost three of their last four games.
Life doesn't get any easier for the Celtics, who will host the Miami Heat on Sunday afternoon in a game pitting the top two teams in the Eastern Conference against each other.
While these games often serve as an early litmus test, the C's can't read anything into that game - or Thursday's loss - in large part because so many of the players that the Celtics would use in case they met in the playoffs, are out with injuries.
West, who was not expected back until after the All-Star break, might return as early as Sunday's game against the Heat.
Rivers said there was some discussion among the medical staff about possibly playing West against the Lakers.
Because no consensus was reached, Rivers decided to keep him out in Thursday's loss.
"He's going to practice Saturday," Rivers said of West. "I would like him actually to play in the New Jersey game on Wednesday just to get him one game. But even if he does play Sunday, let's say, it will be 5 or 10 minutes. It won't be much either way."
Regardless of whether West returns, the Celtics are going to need some seldom-used reserves to step up in a big way in these final two games before the all-star break.
The player most poised to do so is Von Wafer, who had eight points against the Lakers.
Wafer scored all of his points in the first half.
"I played basketball; I just played basketball," he said. "That's what I do. That's what I get paid to do."
He'll get an opportunity to do more of that in these final two games as the Celtics limp towards the All-star break with a beaten and battered team.
As for the players that are out with injuries, Rivers isn't thinking about them right now.
"They weren't here," Rivers said. "So, you know what I mean. What am I supposed to . . . they're not here, so the fact is Shaq and JO, it doesn't matter tonight. We had what we had. Whether it would've made a difference or not, I don't know the answer, is what I'm saying."