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Will a demoralizing loss be a teachable moment? The Celtics hope so

New Orleans's Nickeil Alexander-Walker (left) pulls a rebound away from the Celtics' Tristan Thompson Sunday.
New Orleans's Nickeil Alexander-Walker (left) pulls a rebound away from the Celtics' Tristan Thompson Sunday.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Celtics coach Brad Stevens may have been tempted to stop the film after watching about 30 minutes of his team’s game against the Pelicans in New Orleans. Over that stretch, the ball was moving, shots were falling, and New Orleans star Zion Williamson was being bottled up. The Celtics exploded to a 24-point lead and gave little reason to believe they would relinquish it.

“I thought, in a lot of ways, it was our best 28 minutes of the year,” Stevens said Monday. “Problem is, the game’s 48 minutes.”

The rest of Sunday’s tape, of course, was considerably more troublesome. New Orleans completed its largest comeback in franchise history and snagged a 120-115 overtime win.

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“Yesterday hurt,” Stevens said. “Like, yesterday hurt. When you go back and watch the video, the toughest part for me was that if we play an average end of third, fourth quarter, then we feel really good about ourselves.”

Over a long and grueling NBA season, wins and losses are usually discarded from memory rather quickly, because there is no time to celebrate or dwell before the next challenge arrives. But Sunday’s defeat felt more significant, partly because it was a collapse against a team that is not even in position to make the playoffs, partly because it was Boston’s ninth loss in 14 games, and partly because it provided more evidence that this team has a fourth-quarter problem that must be fixed.

Zion Williamson and the Pelicans celebrate in the second half of their win over the Celtics Sunday afternoon.
Zion Williamson and the Pelicans celebrate in the second half of their win over the Celtics Sunday afternoon.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

So on Monday, the Celtics gathered in Dallas for a rare practice ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Mavericks, and the coaches tried to extract teaching moments from the humbling defeat. They focused on what they can do better when a large lead appears to be evaporating by the second.

“We did some simulations in practice that I think will be productive, and everybody’s attitudes were really good,” Stevens said. “I think when you’re in the midst of this, that’s really hard. You feel the weight of a loss like that and you forget all the great things that you did to get up to that lead. We were able to show [clips of] both.

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“And so in a lot of ways it was our best game up to that point, and then certainly one of our worst after that point. Just got to put it all together, and that’s what we’ll keep working to do.”

There have been some mild but emerging signs of discord after recent losses. For example, when Jaylen Brown was asked Sunday if the Celtics are remaining connected when their first play-call on a possession fizzles, he declined to comment. He also has had some issues with the team’s lack of ball movement recently, and on Sunday said that while there were certainly strong stretches, the team needs to “mature and grow up.”

At the start of his career with the Hornets, point guard Kemba Walker was stunned by the apparent apathy of some teammates as Charlotte stumbled to one loss after another. Boston’s situation is not nearly that dire, but Walker insisted Monday that there are no such issues forming with this group.

“We have guys who really love to compete, who really love to play this game,” he said. “I know them all really well.

“We’re having a tough time. We’ve all just been having a tough time being consistent. We go into our film sessions and we learn, see our mistakes, and try our best to get better in the areas we can improve in.

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“That’s what we’re going to continue to do. We’re going to continue to follow Brad’s lead, and I’ll try my best to help as much as possible.”

Kemba Walker drives against New Orleans' Nicolo Melli in the second half of Sunday's game.
Kemba Walker drives against New Orleans' Nicolo Melli in the second half of Sunday's game.Jonathan Bachman/Getty

Stevens acknowledged that there is bound to be frustration during a stretch such as this one, but he is confident that it will not metastasize.

“A string of losses, tough losses, what we’ve gone through, it’s hard to swallow,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to be able to move on to the next day, the next play, learn, improve, get better. Do all that we can to help each other have success.

“This group, when we get back together, when we meet, we talk, just a really down-to-earth, real level group. We know we have to improve. We will.”


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.