40 games into the season, the Celtics truly are what they are: a .500 basketball club.
Rolling into the All-Star break on a four-game winning streak, the Celtics have resumed their inconsistent ways with losses of three of four since play picked back up, dropping them to 20-20. The Celtics remain a wildly inconsistent team from quarter-to-quarter, too, as displayed throughout a frustrating 117-110 loss to the Cavaliers on Wednesday night.
In Cleveland for the second leg of a back-to-back (which you can’t even use as an excuse because the Cavs were also on the second leg of a back-to-back), the Celtics opened their night with misses on nine of their first 12 shots of the evening. It was enough to noticeably deflate the Celtics, and the Cavs pounded on that to the tune of a 17-point halftime lead.
“What happened was I thought we we were affected by missing shots,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after the loss. “And you could see our body language change. They had several possessions there on their offensive end where we got them to the end of the clock and we were really guarding with great effort. And you could hear us. You could feel that effort.
“But then we were affected [by missing shots]. And then it took us a while to get that back.”
When the Celtics did get that confidence back, it was of course led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (57 of Boston’s 110 points), with a high-energy third-quarter effort that came with 36 total points. That second half start was also powered by a strong boost behind a four-point, four-rebound, and two-steal third-frame showing from center Robert Williams III.
The Celtics kept pushing from there and made it a three-point game in the fourth quarter, but promptly allowed the Cavaliers to go on a 14-5 run, and subjected themselves to what were some downright dreadful looks down the stretch.
“In the second half, we played more like you want to play, but credit [the Cavaliers],” Stevens offered. “Every time we made a run, even when we got it close there at the end, they made every timely basket. They made every timely floater. They made catch-and-shoot threes. They beat us at the end of the clock on several occasions.”
Sure, we can credit the Cavs. Their backcourt duo of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton played some great ball.
But these are the games that the Celtics can’t afford to lose right now.
Chilling in playoff play-in tournament territory entirely too much this season (and back in it after Wednesday’s loss), the Celtics cannot follow up a close game with the West-best Jazz with this kind of effort against the fourth-worst team in the Eastern Conference. Not if we’re to believe that this team is anything more than what their record says.
And the Celtics can’t outright unravel when early shots aren’t going their way against the Cavaliers. And their often-missing killer instinct, something that many believed was a direct result of Marcus Smart’s absence (he’s back), can’t evaporate into thin air and let Cleveland score 14 of the next 19 when you finally claw your way back to a one-possession game. Again, not if we’re to believe that this team is anything more than what their record says, anyway.
This is the time of year where the team’s leaders need to prevent this from happening.
“Everybody [leads] in their own way,” Tatum said when asked what he can do to turn things back in Boston’s favor. “Some guys are more vocal than others, [some] just [lead] by presence, and if you lead by example and you do the right things on the court, everybody else will follow. I think I gotta do better with that approach, get outside myself a little bit more.”
But this goes beyond a speech from the team’s best player, or even if it’s fourth- or ninth-best player.
This is about the Celtics showing that they’re more than a .500 team outside of brief in-game pockets and mini-streaks.
“All we’re trying to focus on, all we’re going to keep trying to focus on is playing good basketball, and we saw more of that in the second half,” Stevens said. “We didn’t see enough of it in the first. And it bit us. If you have a stretch like that against an NBA team, you’re usually in for a bad night. And when you’re playing team that played with the kind of urgency in the way they did [Wednesday], they made us pay for that. So I just want us to play good basketball. You guys have been around me long enough. You know what that means, what it looks like, what it feels like. And we saw, again, some of it.
“But we don’t do it enough of the time, obviously.”
Obviously. Painfully obvious, in fact, as the standings can confirm.