We’ve been impressed with his savvy, pleased with his approach, surprised by his composure, and calmed by his optimism.
After Friday’s disheartening 111-102 home loss to the 76ers, who recently snapped a 26-game losing streak, Brad Stevens had nothing left to offer. The first-year Celtics coach is exhausted, exasperated, and bewildered by his team’s lack of passion as the season winds down.
He promised this team would play hard until the end, despite being headed for the draft lottery. The Celtics have yielded 229 points in the last two games and they turned in a putrid defensive performance Friday, allowing Henry Sims, he of the 42 career NBA games, to resemble Shaquille O’Neal, attempting a whopping 18 free throws as he bulled through an uninterested defense.
The Celtics haven’t looked like a team that was tanking over the past several weeks. They have pushed superior opponents until the waning minutes. Despite their lack of talent, they have impressed teams around the league with their intensity and fortitude.
That team has disappeared, replaced by a squad that’s going through the motions, simply launching 3-pointers and contested jumpers. They have disregarded the playbook and are winging it, leaving Stevens frustrated. He couldn’t discuss the positive points of Friday’s loss because there weren’t any. The Celtics were outplayed by a team made up mostly of D-Leaguers and fringe NBA players playing for training camp invites next season.
When asked if the players are looking forward to the season ending April 16, Stevens did not discount that possibility.
“That may be the case; I hope that’s not the case,” he said. “I said in [that locker room], I’m going to swing hard until 10 or 10:30 on April 16, our last game, and I want whoever’s going to swing, let’s go. Let’s play. Let’s get after it. It is a long year but sometimes you need to dial yourself back to it’s a game that you really enjoy and take the outside pressure off, take the how you’re playing the last game off and just play with a clear mind and with freedom.”
What the organization wanted to avoid, even if it would accept consistent defeats, is the team losing its devotion because there is nothing at stake. It wasn’t that the Celtics just quit Friday, it was they didn’t play with any cohesiveness.
Jerryd Bayless attempted a career-high 12 3-pointers. He had only attempted double digits in a game one other time in his career. Jeff Green was even more passive than usual with eight field goal attempts in 33-plus minutes, while Rajon Rondo and Bayless combined for 13 of Boston’s 22 turnovers.
It was a pathetic performance, one that’s discouraging because it can become commonplace.
“I had a boss one time and this is a great line, he said, ‘fun is doing something well together,’ ” Stevens said. “This is professional basketball. We have to have some seriousness about us but if you do something really well together, there’s no more fun than that.”
The Celtics have stopped having fun. The negative stench from losing has seeped into the locker room. The players are going through the motions. The team’s conscience, Gerald Wallace, can only watch in street clothes because of ankle and knee surgeries, and nobody else is holding the players accountable for their lackadaisical play.
Rajon Rondo is the lone player from the 2008 championship team. He has been anointed team captain and leader but it seems as if he’s still trying to figure out which teammates are committed to success.
“We are all professionals, we have to do a way better job than what we are doing,” Rondo said. “As far as performing for the name across our jerseys, the front and the back. I try to be there as much as possible to root my guys on from them bench. We have to look deep. Everyone has to look in the mirror individually and try to pull out whatever they can give for these last six games.”
Rondo freely acknowledged the 76ers played harder than the Celtics, which is telling. When asked if it was difficult to concede that the opponent wanted it more, he said: “It’s not hard when it’s the truth. It’s not the first time we said this either, so it’s a process. We’ve got to continue to try to move forward. We still have to perform. We have six games left.
“We have everything to play for. We have pride. I have pride. We have pride as a team, Celtic pride, and right now we’re not displaying that at all.”
The Celtics are back on the court Saturday against the Pistons in Detroit, without Avery Bradley and Kris Humphries because of injuries, and Rondo because of rest. They will be shorthanded and their pride is bruised. Stevens is unsure what to expect.
It’s not the way the Celtics wanted to conclude this rocky season but there’s no more motivating the coach can do. The players have to decide how they want to be viewed and whether winning and playing with chemistry is as important as looking toward the offseason. Right now, it appears the players have made their decision to focus on the end before their jobs are fully completed.