After his 50th loss as coach of the Celtics, Brad Stevens sat on the dais before his postgame news conference and searched for answers he’s been chasing all season.
Sunday night, his team played the Chicago Bulls tough at TD Garden, but the Celtics still lost, 107-102, another case in which the margin was slim, but Boston ended up on the wrong end.
The Celtics (23-50) have lost four straight and nine of their last 10. They’ll face the Bulls (41-32) again Monday night in Chicago.
Earlier in the season, Stevens might have pointed toward whatever positives he could after such an outing, to potential silver linings that qualify as lipstick on a pig, as PR spin.
But Sunday night, when asked if he takes any solace in the fact that the game was close, he said, “Nope. Zero.”
Months ago, such outcomes might have given him hope that his team was close to turning those close losses into wins, but after seeing the same result night after night, he understands the reality.
“I just talked about it in the locker room, we can sugar-coat it, we can say, ‘It’s nice to be close,’ — and we have all year — and at the end of the day, it is what it is from a record standpoint,” Stevens said.
“And a lot of people in this position won’t react well to that, and that’s not OK; you react the right way to it and that means that we compete as hard as we can, which I thought we did.”
It was a meat-grinder of a contest, with neither team leading by more than 5 points entering the final five minutes.
Bulls forward Joakim Noah hit a free throw with 2:37 left in the fourth quarter to put his team ahead, 96-93. But Jeff Green hit a fadeaway corner 3-pointer with 2:13 left on the Celtics’ next possession.
Then, with 1:19 left, Bulls guard D.J. Augustin, who scored a career- and game-high 33 points off the bench, nailed a 3-pointer from the left wing.
The Celtics turned it over on their next two possessions, and the Bulls were able to hang on as they sank some late free throws, despite a pair of Jared Sullinger 3-pointers late that made it interesting.
Again, the Celtics were in it, but again their effort went unrewarded.
“It’s a little déjà vu,” said Rajon Rondo, who led the Celtics with 17 points and 11 assists.
It’s much clearer that for the Celtics to win these games, they can’t afford any mistakes, which wasn’t the case in seasons past, when the margin for error wasn’t as slim.
“Obviously, we’re a young team, so-called ‘rebuilding,’ so the margin for error is of course going to be a little smaller,” said Brandon Bass, who scored 12 points.
“We understand that. We’re just trying to get better each and every game and just trying to find the positives no matter what the results are.”
“I thought we played well, for the most part, in the game,” Bass said.
But their loss was a copy of those that preceded it — close, but not close enough.
“You can look at it a couple different ways,” Rondo said. “We hate losing, but we have to find a way eventually to win some of these games. They are very winnable, we’re just not closing the games the right way.”
Sullinger, who had 16 points and 10 rebounds off the bench, summed it up:
“It’s frustrating when you’re in the game and you lose.”
Augustin scored 15 of his points in the fourth quarter, and he finished 10 for 14 from the floor as he topped his previous high of 31 points.
“He’s found his niche, he’s found a team that needs him to play freely to score, and hats off to him,” Stevens said.
Said Rondo: “He got in a rhythm. He did different ways. He shot the ball, he made free throws, he got layups. We couldn’t slow him down.”
Augustin also was 10 for 10 from the free throw line, and the Bulls shot 25 for 31 from the charity stripe while the Celtics were 12 for 16.
The Bulls also made 8 of 16 from long range while the Celtics made 10 of 29.
All five Bulls starters scored in double figures, but Noah was dominant, as he went for 13 points, 13 assists, and 8 rebounds in 37 minutes.
“Honestly, he’s one of my favorite players to watch. He does everything so hard,” Sullinger said. “Playing against Noah is an honor, but at the same time, it’s pretty tough, because he’s always active.”
Green hit four 3-pointers and scored 16 points, though 10 of those came in the first quarter.
Stevens has never called the Celtics a bad team. He has, however, said their record indicates they’re not very good.
But he admits frustration, as he has now lost more games in one season with the Celtics than he did in six seasons at Butler (49).
“I’ve been pretty frustrated, but it is what it is,” Stevens said. “And the one thing I’ve got to do, and I’ve got to set the tone for, is [to do my] job as hard as I can. So that’s what I’m going to do.”
He added, “And I know we’ve got nine games left, and it’s kind of like, ‘Well, how much better can you really get?’ Well something adds up at the end of all this.”
A high draft pick would be ideal, for their sake.