CHICAGO -- Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge knows what it's like for a No. 1 seed to drop the first two games of a series against an eighth-seeded opponent.
Ainge was in the latter stages of his playing days in 1993 when his Phoenix Suns rallied from a 2-0 deficit to top the Los Angeles Lakers in a best-of-five first-round series. The Suns went on to make the NBA Finals before falling to the Chicago Bulls in six games.
Nearly a half-century later, Ainge's Celtics became only the second top-seeded team under the NBA's current seeding format to lose twice at the start of a series. Now, Ainge is hoping the Celtics can find the same levity those Suns did.
As the Celtics went through an off-day workout Thursday at the United Center, Ainge fondly recalled how coach Paul Westphal walked into the Suns' locker room and, at a loss for how to get his team to relax after falling behind in the series, simply asked if anyone had some jokes to tell.
Ainge said a handful of players stood up and offered their best one-liners. Maybe it worked. The Suns won both games on the road, then prevailed in overtime of the deciding Game 5 in Phoenix.
As these Celtics fight through a wide range of emotions -- frustration from losing the first two games and sadness as Isaiah Thomas grieves following his sister's death -- Ainge is hoping his team can find a way to get back to playing the fun and inspired brand of basketball it often showcased this season.
And his players know they are a bit too tight at the moment.
"We need to sit back and relax and just focus on executing a game plan, whatever [coach] Brad [Stevens] prepares for us, and I feel like everything will be fine," Celtics guard Avery Bradley said. "We can’t panic. We’ve been here before. We just have to take it one game at a time and play as hard as we can and try to eliminate all the errors."
Throughout the series, Celtics players have acknowledged how quiet the locker room has been, particularly as players struggle to know how to express themselves while Thomas grieves for the loss of his sister.
Thomas returned home to Tacoma, Washington, on Wednesday morning and was expected to rejoin the team Thursday night. Bradley noted how even a small bit of family time might help Thomas unload the emotions that he carried while remaining in Boston for Games 1 and 2.
But Thomas is far from the only player battling emotions this series. There is obvious frustration among Celtics players with their on-court struggles, which has manifested itself at times in disagreements and finger-pointing among players. Marcus Smart got fined $25,000 for making an obscene gesture toward a fan in frustration during the fourth quarter of Tuesday's Game 2 loss.
"When you’re relaxed, you’re not thinking the game as much," Bradley said. "You’re just out there kind of running up and down playing. I feel like that’s how it was last game. We were trying to get the game back in one shot, and, as a seasoned team, you have to understand it’s gonna take a few execution plays and a few defensive stops to get you back in the game. You have to do a better job of understanding that as a whole. Coaches, players -- we all have to understand that.
"And once we’re able to, I feel like we’ll feel a lot more relaxed out there."
Stevens offered a positive message to his team Wednesday and stressed in a conference call with reporters that he's eager to get his team back on the floor with a chance to prove that the Celtics are capable of playing better than they've shown so far in this series. On Thursday, Stevens wouldn't tip his hand about possible changes to his lineup but said the team would huddle to adjust its game plan.
"Whenever you get beat, you're antsy to get back out on the court and play," Stevens said. "But we've been outplayed in the first two games. There's no question about it. And so I think that you should have a little fire to get out there and play better than we have."
The Celtics seem confident that Stevens will make the right changes to put the team in position to be more competitive. Boston players are adamant that Stevens deserves better than the 2-10 record the Celtics have posted over the past three postseasons.
"We're losing, so that makes me mad," Jae Crowder said. "I don’t think it’s that big of a deal for [Stevens], especially early in his career. He’s only in his first three seasons. But we’d like to get some wins here."
The Celtics have used the notion that they are underdogs to fuel them for much of the past three seasons. Even as the top seed entering the playoffs, the team found motivation in those that suggested they were the worst top seed in recent memory. Alas, Boston has done little to suggest those assessments were wrong with their play through the first two games.
But the 0-2 hole might allow the Celtics to once again embrace that underdog mentality.
"It’s not ideal to go down 0-2. Our backs are against the wall right now and we as a team have played with a chip on our shoulders the whole year and been the underdog," said Crowder. "It’ll be like familiar ground for us to come out where everything is against us, to come out and prevail."