If Brad Stevens didn’t know already after his extensive research of the NBA game before accepting the offer to coach the Boston Celtics, the difference between successful teams and those that consistently lose are about three to four plays per game.
Those plays for the Celtics have mostly occurred in the fourth quarter, as they did Sunday when they were bested, 107-102, by the Chicago Bulls after tying the game with 2:13 left. The loss marked the Celtics’ sixth 50-loss season in their rich 67-year history and first since 2006-07, when Boston was pounded on the nightly basis and lost 58 games.
After that season, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge executed the draft-day trade for Ray Allen that began the Big Three Era. But in the midst of that miserable season, the organization had no clue its fortunes would change so quickly.
This edition of the 50-loss club is in a similar position, potentially banking on the draft to improve, hoping this painful season brands lessons into the brains of the younger players. The Celtics are one of the NBA’s have-nots, a team that is almost a sure bet to collapse down the stretch during games.
It’s an excruciating fact because no team wants to be the team that continues to lose in the fourth quarter. But that’s who the Celtics are. They blew a 4-point lead in the final three minutes Friday at Toronto and botched key plays after Jeff Green evened the game with a 3-pointer in Sunday’s loss to the Bulls.
That’s what 50-loss teams do. They blow leads. They find ways to lose. They wilt in the pressure moments.
Stevens is fully aware of this. He understands that encouraging words can only go so far when the nights repeat itself, when opposing player after player strut back to their bench after hitting a back-breaking shot with only seconds left.
“I’m not the most vocal guy, but I won’t run out of things to say,” Stevens said. “The last two [games] have defined where we are. There’s no hiding from that. It is what it is. The reality is, we’re a team that isn’t — by record — very good. A lot of people in our situation would not handle that the right way and our task is to handle that the right way, be professional about it, and bring our best every day. I think we played hard, but I’m frustrated with the end result.”
The frustration can be numbing, and the Celtics are banking that doesn’t overwhelm the players. They are numb in Philadelphia and Milwaukee and Utah, too. The players there have become accustomed to losing, relenting early in games and going through the motions.
Perhaps one of the reasons (among many) why the 2007-08 Celtics won a championship is Ainge uprooted many of the players who had suffered through the 18-game losing streak the previous season. Losing can be contagious and poisonous.
The one remaining member from that ’06-07 season that nearly cost Rivers his job is Rajon Rondo, whose memory of that year is intentionally bad.
“I don’t think much about that season, I think about the following season. I don’t remember ’06-07, honestly,” he said. “That was almost eight years ago. You try to put those things . . . I can’t really remember 2006; I just remember I didn’t play a lot.”
Rondo hasn’t forgotten that he didn’t want to relive that season. But in some ways, he is. The losses are piling up, and the players are just trying to finish the season with pride, hoping there is some type of positive that emanates from these constant disappointments.
Veterans who have been through this know what late March is like when the season appears hopeless.
“You gotta just compete and have fun,” forward Kris Humphries said. “One of the things we always say when we come out, before we go out on the court is have fun. We’re just trying to do that and finish up strong. We’re going to compete every game.”
When asked if this process is fun, he said: “There’s parts that are fun. Competing and then if you take the loss at the end, it kind of flips it up on you. You gotta make the most out of it. Control your effort. Play as hard as you can and hopefully we win some here.”
Nine games are left. The Celtics are limping to the finish line and there are no awards for trying hard or putting up a good fight. Stevens’s most challenging job as coach is keeping his team motivated, stressing his younger players to remember this time but not too intently and learning to make those three to four plays that separate winners from losers. It’s that simple.
“Here’s what I think: I’m getting a lot better at this [coaching], our team is going to get a lot better because of this,” Stevens said “And that’s hard to process when you’re in the midst of it. I’ve had a great coach tell me that the toughest times are the ones that help for you and make you better, and I believe that. But it’s hard to think that right now.”