The Celtics’ wobbly season reached its nadir Sunday, as the team followed Friday’s loss to the Pistons by being pummeled by the lowly Wizards, 104-91. Detroit and Washington have a combined record of 3-2 against the Celtics this season and 11-34 against the rest of the NBA.
Boston trailed by 25 points with just over four minutes left before third-stringers made the damage look less severe than it truly was.
“Some very disappointing losses,” point guard Kemba Walker said. “We’re just not playing the way that we know we’re capable of playing. That has to be fixed, and soon.”
Walker and Jaylen Brown had 25 points apiece for the Celtics on 20-for-39 combined shooting, but the rest of the team made just 12 of 51 shots.
Observations from the game:
▪ The crisp ball movement the Celtics displayed in Friday’s game against the Raptors, when they registered a season-high 30 assists, faded further into the distance Sunday. One game after tying their season low with 15 assists, Boston set a new season low with just 14.
When Brown was asked about the struggles, he declined to comment. Coach Brad Stevens, meanwhile, acknowledged that it is a problem that needs to be addressed with personnel decisions. Injuries and COVID-19 absences combined with a group of second-tier players that don’t really stand out from one another have presented challenges for Stevens, but this regression could make his choices easier.
“I know we’ve talked a lot about lineups and consistency and who plays and who doesn’t play,” he said. “Guys that really move the ball or guys that really run to spots and really execute hard have probably got to be the priority, playing-wise, for now around our very best players. And I think that that’s where we’re going to have to get to, because that’s clearly an issue.”
▪ The Celtics fell behind, 77-53, when Russell Westbrook completed a 3-point play with 6:09 left in the third. Boston then needed just over two minutes to slice the deficit to 78-64 on a Brown 3-point play. But the comeback stalled there because Washington answered with six consecutive free-throw attempts coming on non-shooting fouls after it had entered the penalty.
This has been a lingering issue during this Celtics cold streak, and it’s generally a sign of either tired legs or a lack of effort, or both.
“Guarding the ball without fouling is something you have to do in this league,” Brown said. “It’s extremely hard, but it’s something that we have to do consistently and we haven’t done it as a group.
The Wizards made 31 of 36 free throws, helping them win easily despite making just 23.3 percent of their 3-pointers.
“We definitely need to stop fouling and putting guys at the free-throw line,” Walker said. “It’s just not helping us at all.”
▪ Jayson Tatum’s shooting slump has progressed to the point where it should be a concern. On Sunday he was just 3 for 14 and scored 6 points, and he has made 50 percent of his shots just once in 11 games since returning from a COVID-19 absence. The downturn recently has been significant. He has made just 32 of 91 (35.1 percent) shots over Boston’s last five games. He entered Sunday second in the NBA in minutes per game, and it’s possible he also has some lingering effects from having COVID-19, but something is off.
He probably wasn’t going to get a starting spot in the All-Star game anyway, but this quiet stretch should solidify that.
▪ Maybe he was just seeking a hint of sunlight on a cloudy afternoon, but after the loss Stevens singled out the play of his third-stringers in the closing minutes, as the Celtics whittled away at the big deficit.
“If our team can play more like that last five minutes, then we can be as good as we can be,” he said. “If not, we will be average.”
There’s no harm in focusing on a positive, but the game was over at that point and both teams knew it.
▪ There were very few encouraging moments for the Celtics, but Walker’s play on offense was one. He had been mired in a brutal stretch inside the arc, making just 1 of his last 20 two-point attempts. But on Sunday he probed and had a couple of nice first-quarter finishes off the glass, seemingly giving him some confidence in an area he has thrived in throughout his career. He followed that up in the second quarter with a pair of tough mid-range buckets.
Walker was asked afterward if the performance was something to build on, but he said that’s not really possible after such an ugly loss. Stevens insisted he was never concerned about Walker’s play.
“I didn’t lose sleep over Kemba last week,” he said. “I’m not going to lose any sleep over him keeping that tonight. He’s a pro. He’s a winner. He’s tough. He cares. He’s all that. He’s all what’s good. He played with some heart in a lot of situations tonight, and was the loudest voice on the team all afternoon. And so I don’t worry about Kemba. I’ll let everybody else do that.”
▪ Rookie Aaron Nesmith, who had played just 10 minutes over Boston’s last eight games, entered midway through the first quarter for an extended run and ended up playing a career-high 28 minutes, 43 seconds.
He had no real impact on offense. His lone basket came in the final minute, and he didn’t register any assists. But his promising moments came on the defense, where he showed good effort and did well fighting through screens to challenge Wizards shooters. He pumped his fist after sprinting back on a fast-break and slowing Wizards star Bradley Beal in transition, forcing a travel.
▪ Marcus Smart’s absence was never more apparent than the start of the third quarter, when the Wizards offense seemingly did as it pleased, roasting the Celtics for easy fast-break chances along with backdoor cuts in half-court sets that left Boston’s players looking around for someone to blame.
▪ Celtics other than Walker and Brown had combined to go 0 for 16 on 3-pointers before Semi Ojeleye hit one at the 7:33 mark of the fourth quarter.