WALTHAM, Mass. -- Late in yesterday's practice, Dominique Wilkins received an inadvertent slap in the face from Rick Fox, who was guarding him in a half-court scrimmage. It was a momentary, physical hurt.
But it was nothing compared to the verbal slap in the face that the future Hall of Famer sustained the night before, the pain of which still lingered yesterday. A scattering of fans had booed his every missed shot (he was 1-for-9), particularly in the second half of the team's sixth straight defeat, a 107-98 embarrassment to the NBA doormat L.A. Clippers at the Boston Garden.
"It's hard to hear. . . . To get on a person like that is disappointing. But they want a win as badly as we do," said Wilkins, who scored two points in 20 minutes and left the dressing room while declining any post-game comment.
But unlike a week ago, when director of basketball operations M. L. Carr and fellow co-captain Dee Brown had criticized Wilkins for speaking out against the team's offensive scheme and the way players were being used, Brown, coach Chris Ford, Carr and team president Red Auerbach came to Wilkins' defense yesterday.
"I was very disappointed in the fans, to tell you the truth," Brown said after practice at Brandeis, where onlookers included Auerbach and Larry Bird, in town for the team's mid-winter scouting meeting. "I've been here for five years and I've never seen that happen before. Dominique's earned so much respect. Dominique's done so many good things that players who can't get to his level only dream of doing and for people to boo him like that every time he missed a shot definitely was not fair.
"He struggled last night. He's going to have nights like that. But the last thing you need is for the home crowd to turn on you and make you feel that you're not wanted," added Brown. "He's trying hard. He's trying his best. I've just never seen anything like that since I've been here."
Carr said that while the fans in question made their point, "I would have loved to see them back off 'Nique a little bit. That was a bit much."
And Ford, who had engaged in some public verbal sparring with Wilkins in recent days -- a rift that Wilkins said has been healed after a couple of conversations with his coach -- also was upset.
"It was upsetting to everyone," said Ford. "It's unfortunate they had to single out any individual, particularly Dominique who's given everything he has to the game. But it's understandable. They're paying good money to see us play and they want to see us get out and do things."
Auerbach, who wasn't about to make Wilkins the fall guy for the team's recent swoon, said that when he coached the four decades ago, he even heard the fans boo local favorite Bob Cousy, who was also en route to the Hall of Fame. "So it's not the first time. But it doesn't make it right," said Auerbach.
Wilkins, yesterday, tried to analyze what has gone wrong during January in which the Celtics have gone 4-9 and have fallen out of the playoff mix.
"It didn't start with the Clippers," he said. "Last week's L.A. game [a last-second loss to the Lakers] hurt us We came back and played well and should have won it. But one thing has just carried over to the next. We have to stay together now."
Wilkins said that despite his slump, that included a 4-for-14 shooting night last Tuesday against Orlando, he is confident that the team and he will improve.
"I'll come out of it. I always do. I'm not worried about that. Everybody goes through these stretches," said Wilkins, who said his remarks critical of the team and his coach "were blown way out of proportion. Chris and I talked this morning. Things are fine. The only thing that isn't fine is that we aren't winning any games."
Wilkins said that in order for the Celtics to shake their collective woes, "everybody will have to turn their game up a notch, me included. I hate to sit [he played 20 minutes Wednesday], but when you're struggling like that, sometimes you have to.
"I was pressing. I was missing easy shots. I've got to relax and let the game come to me. It hasn't been a lack of hard work," added Wilkins, "but sometimes it seems like you're one step behind. We haved to get over the hump and it starts with a win."