BOSTON -- The best news for fans of the Celtics is that they aren't fans of the Lakers.
Fans of the Celtics normally like to take pride in that fact, but that's as far as it goes. The Lakers are in trouble, embarrassed and searching for a coach five games into the season. But the Celtics haven't been much better. On Friday they were beaten every which way by the 76ers, even though they have yet to benefit from their big offseason acquisition of franchise star Andrew Bynum.
The 106-100 loss was something you had to see in order to appreciate the difficulties of the 2-3 Celtics, who were slower on the attack and in retreat. They were beaten to loose balls, they were outscored 56-38 in the paint and they could do little to prevent the Sixers backcourt of Jrue Holiday (21 points and 14 assists) and Evan Turner (25 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists) from reaching the basket to create or finish. After starting 1-for-10 from the field, Philadelphia went 22-for-35 to seize control on its way to a halftime lead of 57-45.
"We hung in the game, fought back, but every time we needed a stop we didn't get it,'' said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "We have not been a great defensive team so far this year.''
For many important stretches of this evening it sounded as if the Celtics were playing in a half-empty bus terminal. Fans who expected their deepened bench to pay off instantly are going to have to wait, and it may turn out to be a long wait. While Jason Terry was a promising 5-for-7 (including 2 of 4 threes) for 13 points off the bench, the other newcomers -- Jeff Green especially -- continued to struggle. "We've just got to unlock him,'' said Rivers after watching Green go 1-for-5 with 4 rebounds in 18 minutes. "Right now he's just absolutely frustrated. You can see it in his play.''
Rajon Rondo put up spectacular numbers of 20 assists and 14 points, and yet the Celtics' most relevant plays were the mis-timed passes involving Rondo and Paul Pierce, who overcame a slow start to finish with 24 points (8 of 16). A team that is known for making the game easy for one another is struggling for everything. There are few easy baskets. The floor isn't opening for Rondo as in previous years. He was squeezing himself through the defense as if trying to catch the rush-hour train while the doors were closing. It has been hard going for everybody.
"I'm very patient,'' said Celtics captain Paul Pierce. "I understand it's a process. It's still a long season.''
After replacing Ray Allen and reinventing their rotation around Rondo, Pierce and Kevin Garnett (19 & 10), this early stretch may be the hard section of the learning curve that turns downhill as the playoffs approach. That is going to be the Celtics' plan, at least. In the meantime they were devoured by Thaddeus Young (15 & 5), whose quick-hitters inside fit nicely with the aggressive tempo of this team. Will the debut of Bynum, whenever that day comes, set the Sixers back by slowing them down?
Then there was the inspiring play of Turner, who, according to 76ers coach Doug Collins, 'is his own worst enemy. He puts so much pressure on himself to be perfect.''
So why did this game seem so easy for Turner and this team that has struggled to score in previous games against less intimidating franchises? The 76ers were able to gauge the Celtics last postseason while taking them to a Game 7 in the Eastern semifinals. They behaved Friday as if they believe Boston can -- and should -- be beaten. "That's a key thing,'' said Turner, "just sticking together and outlasting them.''
These Celtics have reached two NBA Finals and contended for another by pursuing a similar agenda, and resiliency may yet turn out to be the defining characteristic of this year's team. They -- and the Sixers as well -- can draw strength from looking around the league and realizing that only the Heat, Spurs and Knicks have been playing exceptionally in this opening fortnight. Other consistent contenders will emerge as the year goes on. Boston and Philadelphia both hope to rank among them in the end.