LOS ANGELES — The toughest part of the Celtics’ West Coast road swing began Wednesday night at Staples Center against the Clippers. Their best chance for victory was supposed to be Tuesday night against the Denver Nuggets, who recently had snapped an eight-game losing streak.
The Celtics lost by 31.
So something has to change. Gerald Wallace, never one to mince words or hold back when assessing his new team, pointed that out following the 129-98 loss to the Nuggets. It’s not only that the Celtics lost and lost badly, but somehow, in the thin air and the avalanche of 3-pointers, they lost their pride.
That’s discouraging, because coach Brad Stevens’s ragtag bunch had grasped the concept of playing with pride and passion. But their pride dissipated in the third quarter Tuesday night, when the Nuggets sensed the Celtics had given up and responded with a series of blows, running the same pick-and-roll plays to draw free throws.
In one sequence, former Celtic Nate Robinson stole the ball from Avery Bradley and was left alone at the 3-point line. He released the shot as if he had no choice because he was so open. Of course, the ball swished through the hoop.
The Celtics are playing as if they are individually trying to save the team. Bradley has been reckless on defense, his intense pressure turning into touch fouls 45 feet from the basket.
As a byproduct of his ailing left hand, Jared Sullinger is beginning to play with frustration, evidenced by his two flagrant fouls in a 23-second span that led to his ejection. One of Tuesday night’s flagrants was rescinded, but Sullinger has five flagrant fouls this season — and is nearing suspension territory — after he was hit with a Flagrant 1 Wednesday night in the Celtics’ 111-105 loss to the Clippers.
The Celtics were playing with confidence a month ago, improving to 12-14 after a home victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, but they have won just once since, a narrow victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in which they nearly blew a 20-point lead.
This team is playing rattled and its confidence is waning, and Wallace’s comments, although harsh, are accurate.
“I’m very surprised. Right now, we’re the team that’s all talk,” he said following the Denver loss. “We talk about how we want to get better. We talk about things we need to do to get better. It’s easy to go out and practice and do it. Practice doesn’t really apply to anything with making yourself better. When they turn them lights on, when it really counts, when it’s about the team and making the team better and trying to win as a team, we don’t do it.”
Stevens is a first-year head coach but he seems astute enough to know when to challenge his players and when to allow locker room issues to take care of themselves. He said before Wednesday night’s game that he did not read Wallace’s comments and that, yes, they are a team of talk.
“Well, we are putting a lot of time into talking about it and thinking about it,” said Stevens, whose team had yielded 248 points in its previous two games. “Our meetings and practices were good. Here’s the deal, [Wallace is] a guy that’s accomplished something before and he wants to do it again and I talk about the emotions of it with these guys and that’s part of it. When you hear them or talk to them after the game, you’re going to hear some emotional responses, and that’s OK.”
The Celtics spent most of Stevens’s first 30-plus games playing harder than their opponent. Opposing coaches and scouts lauded Stevens and the Celtics for their work ethic. Although a throng of Celtics fans has clamored for a season of tanking, Stevens and the organization have refused to listen.
And they shouldn’t now. With losses by Brooklyn and Detroit Wednesday, the Celtics stepped onto the floor tied for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, and they will get the services of an All-Star point guard, Rajon Rondo, in coming weeks.
They just have to navigate through this difficult journey without losing hope and fortitude. Following an embarrassing loss to the Houston Rockets in November, Stevens criticized the team and it responded with a worthy effort the next evening against the San Antonio Spurs.
The Celtics may not end this treacherous West Coast trip with a victory, but they eventually can change their fortunes and remain competitive for the playoffs and continue their encouraging progress under Stevens.
“We have to stop it on the court, right?” Stevens said of the malaise. “Maybe that’s what Gerald’s referring to. You just have to go out and play and you have to play well. My focus, and it has been on this all year, is to play good basketball and try our best to play good basketball. And there are things that go into that that we’re not doing well. But we’re not far from doing them well.”
Stevens is correct. Wallace is also correct. It’s going to take something more than pep talks and rah-rah to beat teams that want nothing more than to discourage a young, inconsistent team with an early flurry.
The NBA is not a sympathetic league, and the Celtics have to stop feeling sorry for themselves and respond to the challenge. It’s the only way to return to their ascension.