By A. Sherrod Blakely
BOSTON When you look at this Boston Celtics team, there's plenty of talented, experienced, playoff-proven players.
That kind of basketball resume breeds a certain mental toughness that, when times are hard, allows these players to flourish instead of flounder in big games.
But that's part of the problem.
This group recognizes the need to play with a sense of urgency when facing the NBA's elite.
Not so much.
It certainly played out that way on Monday as the Celtics lost at home, 108-102 to a sub-.500 Houston Rockets team.
Now having lost two straight, the C's are finding themselves having to deal with the kind of questions that championship-caliber teams don't usually have to address.
Specifically, their mental toughness.
No, it's not being questioned so much by the media.
Instead, it's their head coach, Doc Rivers.
"You look at some of our losses, record-wise, you know it's mental," he said. "That's a mental mindset and it starts with me. I've got to somehow figure out a way of getting them to see the urgency of the whole season and not the single game."
The C's can talk about taking it 'one game at a time' all they want to.
But Rivers acknowledged that the big picture involves getting deep into the playoffs, and to do that requires winning the games you're supposed to.
And no matter how you look at it, with or without Kevin Garnett (out with right calf strain), the C's should have beaten the Rockets.
With most of his teammates already gone for the night, Paul Pierce once again stood front and center, answering every question - including those questioning his team's mental toughness in allowing a winnable game, at home, get away from them so easily.
"Especially at home," said Pierce, clearly dejected following the C's second straight loss. "These games mean a lot down the road . . . we got to put our work boots on and come with our 'A' game. There are a lot of games that we're letting slip away that we're supposed to win."
Winning is always a premium.
But it's even more vital for success this season if you're looking to come out of the Eastern Conference.
Based on how a number of teams have improved, a repeat of the Celtics' run towards the NBA Finals last season as a fourth-seed is unlikely to happen.
One of the reasons Boston didn't finish with a better record last season, was because it didn't always bring its best stuff to the floor - similar to what we saw on Monday night.
"This year is not like last year, where you could coast," Rivers said. "You don't have home court this year, you could go home."
That's why Rivers' concern level is relatively high after what was only the team's ninth loss of the season.
As much as the Celtics would have benefited from better play, it can't be a one- or two-game improvement.
When you watch this team play, it seems too many are thinking about what they need to do for a particular game, and aren't necessarily seeing the big picture.
"You see them thinking about the individual game and not the ramifications of the entire season," Rivers said. "And playing Game Seven (of the NBA Finals last year) on the road. And hell, not just in the Finals if you make it there, but in the playoffs."
Yes, we're not even halfway through the season yet and Rivers is talking about the playoffs.
Under normal circumstances, it wouldn't be that big a deal.
This is a veteran group. They can handle such rhetoric and not allow it to negatively affect their play - we think.
"We're not perfect," said guard Nate Robinson. "We make mistakes, but you fight through those mistakes. It's the wall we have to go through, or climb over."
A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn.