The Celtics haven’t done very much consistently this year, but they’ve found a way to create new low points even when there does not seem to be much room.
It’s hard to imagine this season getting worse than it became Wednesday, when the Hawks poured 3-pointers all over their heads and pummeled them, 127-112. But at this point, it’s hard to count anything out.
Boston has lost three games in a row, and the setbacks have come in a variety of demoralizing ways. There was the loss to the Pelicans, when Boston coughed up a 24-point second-half lead. There was the loss to the Mavericks, when Luka Doncic drilled a crushing pair of late 3-pointers.
And then came Wednesday, the most embarrassing of the bunch. The Hawks connected on 23 of 42 3-pointers, a record for a Celtics opponent. Danilo Gallinari was 10 for 12 from beyond the arc and scored 38 points. One night after not being selected for the All-Star Game, Trae Young had 33 points and 7 assists. Celtics All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, meanwhile, combined to go 1 for 14 from beyond the arc.
The Celtics trailed by as many as 27 points in the fourth quarter before their third-stringers made the final score look less grisly than the game truly was.
“I think we’re all stung and disappointed with how we’ve played,” coach Brad Stevens said. “I think that’s affected the confidence of the group, and instead of fighting, scratching and clawing, we’ve had moments where we haven’t. And we have to get back to that.”
Observations from the game:
⋅ It’s tough to know how Stevens will react after a lousy loss. Sometimes he focuses on encouraging moments. Sometimes he shreds his team, although that does not happen frequently. After Wednesday’s game, he mostly sounded tired and defeated. But he tried to maintain hope, and he wanted his players to maintain theirs, too.
“The only way I know to get that [rhythm] back is to dive on the floor, is to take charges, is to sprint to help your teammates up, is to fight for every single possession,” Stevens said. “And that’s our charge. And I don’t know how to say it any more clearly than that. But it’ll be said in whatever way it needs to be said, and we just need to make sure that we’re doing our job.”
⋅ This was one of the worst games of Tatum’s career. He made 4 of 20 shots and registered just one assist and one rebound over 31 minutes, 49 seconds. He is shooting a career-worst 43.9 percent from the field this season. He is an All-Star, but there have been plenty of games this season in which he has not looked like one.
“I have to take accountability as one of the leaders and being that guy,” he said. “I have to be better. I have to be more vocal. I have to kind of be the example, especially knowing that we lost two tough games.”
⋅ If the rest of the Eastern Conference’s middle tier wasn’t so mediocre, the Celtics would be in a really bad spot. Boston (15-17) is in a three-way tie for eighth place with the Knicks and the Heat, but just a half-game behind the Bulls, Raptors, and Hornets, and one game behind the Pacers.
⋅ The Celtics have only had a handful of full practices this season due to the condensed schedule. Brown said it’s been a challenge for this young group to not have much time between games to figure out how to execute a game plan.
“I can tell whatever the focus is, it’s not there,” he said. “It’s not enough. It’s almost as if it’s like — I don’t know. But it just isn’t there. But we’ve just got to be better going game to game with the right enthusiasm and the right mentality for each game, which is tough. But we’ve got to be able to do it.”
⋅ Young did whatever he wanted in the first half. He pulled up for a 3-pointer from the midcourt logo. He inbounded the ball off Grant Williams’s backside with just one second on the shot clock before retrieving it and scoring. The point guard went to halftime with 25 points and 4 assists.
⋅ It’s partly due to a lack of available players, but Stevens once again mixed up his early rotation patterns. Semi Ojeleye and Robert Williams were the first two subs off the bench, and Carsen Edwards got a rare first-quarter chance, too. He hit a 3-pointer and went end-to-end for a layup after a rebound, but had a couple of glaring defensive errors.
With 1:15 left in the quarter, less than a minute after Gallinari had drilled his first 3-pointer, Edwards inexplicably left him alone at the right arc, allowing the Hawks forward to calmly measure and drain the jumper.
⋅ Gallinari struggled mightily in the two games in Boston last week, but he was warm and comfortable and confident Wednesday, and his quick start turned into an absolutely dominant second quarter as Young sat on the bench. He started the game 7 for 7 on 3-pointers, including one with his foot on the mid-court logo and another about 10 feet beyond the left arc. He finished the first half with 24 points.
“We were just kind of hanging in there, and then they just unloaded on us with Gallinari making all those shots,” Stevens said. “And they were not as well defended as we need to.”
⋅ Marcus Smart, who missed his 14th consecutive game because of a calf strain, got into the box score when he picked up a technical foul from the bench in the second quarter. The Celtics have missed his fire in a big way the past few weeks.
“What he brings to the table is obvious on both ends of the court,” Stevens said. “It’s statistically backed up, anybody who watches basketball and knows basketball knows that. The second part is that it makes it so that your rotations, you always have two of [Smart, Walker, Tatum or Brown] in the game. That’s something that’s been hurtful, but it’s no excuse.”