Avery Bradley brightens Boston with bodacious block, Paul Pierce laments lack of ‘mental toughness’ (VIDEO)

The Boston Celtics won six of seven games after guard Avery Bradley returned to the lineup on Jan. 2, igniting hopes that the all-around demon would create the sort of spark that teams featuring a series of go-to players in their 30s (and one that acts like he’s in his 40s, in Rajon Rondo) typically need. Since that rush, though, the Celtics have dropped four straight – including what could be characterized as an embarrassing loss in Cleveland to the Cavaliers on Tuesday night.

The lone highlight for Boston, and it was a startling one, was Bradley’s block on Cavs rookie Dion Waiters. Watch, if you dare:

I suppose, for Waiters, this could also be characterized as “embarrassing.”

It looked a bit like Tayshaun Prince’s famous block on Reggie Miller from the 2004 Eastern conference finals. Like Prince, though, Bradley isn’t much of a shot-blocker overall — this rejection was his fifth on the season, and he’s tallied 17 in 105 career games. Still, it was a something for the team that doesn’t have anything but a likely playoff berth in a bad Eastern conference.

And, according to Paul Pierce, among the many things the Celtics are lacking this season is mental toughness, along with the 28 or so wins that usually accompany the C’s to this time of the NBA year. From Gary Washburn at the Boston Globe:

“I think we got pieces here,” the Celtics captain said before Tuesday night’s 95-90 loss to the Cavaliers. “We just got to come together. We got to figure this thing out. Can’t get discouraged.

“I think that’s the one thing this team lacks, that mental toughness, man. When we lose our confidence, I’ve never been on teams like that. We got to stay together, we got to play with confidence.

“Yeah, definitely, it hurts me to say that. It’s like I really sometimes don’t believe it.

“We get down on ourselves. We got to go out there and believe we can win every game. It’s tough sometimes.”

Keep in mind, these statements were made before the Celtics lost to a Cavaliers team that entered the evening with a 10-32 record. Kyrie Irving danced all over the Boston defense for a wonderful to watch (even the dyspeptic Celtics announcing crew, working without Tom Heinsohn, couldn’t ruin it) 40 points on 24 shots.

We’ll leave the peppier stuff, like Irving’s play, for peppier writers. What’s clear right now is that the Celtics are basically going to be gifted a playoff berth because the lottery portion of the East’s bracket is littered with terrible teams. As Eric Freeman thoughtfully pointed out on Monday, the team appears to lack a collective and obvious identity along with that mental toughness, leaving us to wonder if recent public airings by GM Danny Ainge, coach Doc Rivers, and Pierce are actually something more than your typical “everything is wrong, but not really” motivational ploys.

Toss in Kevin Garnett’s assertion that he doesn’t deserve to start the 2013 All-Star Game, and you may have something here. Something legitimately unpleasant.

As noted, though, the Celtics will still probably grab that final playoff berth out East. Philadelphia probably doesn’t have enough time to make up ground, even with Andrew Bynum returning eventually, and Toronto’s impressive recent play has really only lifted them to the ranks of the mediocre — you need to start winning three out of every five to make up for all those losses in November. The reality is that the Celtics could still trade five-game winning and five-game losing streaks from here until late April, and still be given a playoff spot that the team’s veterans may not believe they deserve.

Sort of like when Jerry West won the Finals MVP in losing cause. Ugh, the ultimate downer.

All Boston wanted, at the outset of the season, was a chance to get to the postseason healthy and see what happened when the rotations shortened. I’m not sure they wanted to get there this way, though.

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