BOSTON - Here we had two teams, both proud franchises with championship aspirations, hovering around the border of mediocrity. They played for 58 minutes on Wednesday, offering glimpses of past glory interspersed with unsubtle reminders of their current struggles. The Celtics won, 117-115, because the rules state that someone had to. But if ever there was an NBA game that deserved to end in a tie this was probably it.
The Celtics had several chances to win on last possessions and botched them all. They shot 43 percent and missed 16 of their 22 attempts from three-point range. The Mavericks, in what has become a depressingly familiar refrain, turned the ball over an astonishing 28 times.
"I wish we could keep playing until we win," O.J. Mayo said.
Across the hall, Jeff Green offered the victor's response. "I'm just happy we won," he said. "I'm glad it's over."
The Celtics were understandably relieved after surviving. They have now won three games in a row and are continuing to show signs of recapturing their once fearsome defensive form. Yet the Mavs were oddly encouraged, as well.
"Look at the stat sheet," Rick Carlisle said. "What I am is encouraged. Because we had 28 turnovers and give up 34 points off turnovers and to be in the game against this team, is an encouraging fact. It means we have a lot of positive upside to us and we go to find it. We got to find it with efficiency and we got to do a better job at covering the ball one on one. We can do it, I believe in these guys I really do. We showed a lot of guts hanging in this thing and we've got to be able to make some plays."
What this is about for both these teams is perspective. Before the game Carlisle and Doc Rivers offered strikingly similar assessments of their two clubs a quarter of the way through the season.
"I'm not looking at the record that much," Carlisle said. "You're aware of it, but you've got to get better every day. That's where the focus is. The record is what it is. In my eleventh year of doing this, some of your perspective changes a little bit. Each day we've just got to find one or two little things and just try to get stronger at those. Last five games or so were doing some better things defensively and we've got to fight like hell to keep that going."
And here was Rivers' take:
"I rarely look at our record," he said. "I don't think I could tell you our exact record. Having said that, I know if we get the team right then the record will take care of itself. I really do focus all on that. I feel like over the last four or five games we've played better than what we've won but at the end of the day, we've got to win. That's it. You are what your record says and you always will be. Now we have to do it consistently and we have to do it together."
Both coaches have been around far too long to panic over slow starts and they are savvy and secure enough to know that each of their teams will take time to become a team in the traditional sense. The Celtics have only five players left from the squad that took Miami to seven games in the conference finals. The Mavericks, meanwhile, have only four remaining from the team that won the NBA championships just two years ago, and that's including Dirk Nowitzki, who has missed the first 22 games and counting after undergoing knee surgery.
"There is no timetable," Carlisle said whenever Nowitzki's name was mentioned, but there's no question that his absence looms large. How could it not? With only a handful of players signed beyond this season, this is a team that is clearly in transition, but any team with Nowitzki is by definition dangerous. Just as any team with Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce must be taken seriously.
That's the hope anyway, but this is no revival act. Both of them are not just integrating new personnel, they are experimenting with different approaches. In the offseason, Carlisle convinced Jim O'Brien to join him on the bench. They first met in New York when O'Brien was a young assistant on Rick Pitino's staff and Carlisle was at the end of his playing career. Their careers have crisscrossed ever since. O'Brien's Celtics team knocked Carlisle's Pistons out of the playoffs en route to an unlikely conference finals appearance in 2002 and later, it was O'Brien who replaced Carlisle in Indiana.
When Terry Stotts left to take over the Blazers, Carlisle had one name in mind and he didn't just want a friend on the bench. "We have to play a completely different style that I've ever coached before because of the way our team is structured," Carlisle said. "He's had great input into that."
This has not always been a smooth transition, but again ... Nowitzki.
"I still think we're on the right path," Elton Brand said. "Dirk's getting healthy. He's working hard every day. We've had some tough losses that we need to grow from. We could easily be 14-8. We're learning from it, getting better from it. We need to find a way to close these games. We'll be fine."
For their part, the Celtics have put a premium on lineup flexibility and have even altered their well-worn defensive stance by aggressively trapping ballhandlers in the pick and roll. "I've been talking about it a lot and over the past seven games it's been paying dividends for us," Rivers said. "It's been terrific."
Their offense has improved dramatically, from the lower depths to right around league average, but their trademark defense has been slow in coming around. Yet Rivers sees hopeful signs. Before Wednesday they had allowed just 95.6 points per 100 possessions in their previous five games.
"In the second and third quarter we were terrific defensively," Rivers said. "The second unit spent six minutes without them scoring a bucket and then I subbed the starters in and they scored five points in 30 seconds. Overall I did like our defense."
This was a step for both teams, no more and no less. When they meet again in three months they would both like to be in a much different place.