ATLANTA — There were several points during the Atlanta Hawks’ 127-112 demolition of the Celtics Wednesday night at State Farm Arena where instead of Sir Foster tickling his organ keys with hip-hop tunes during Hawks offensive plays, it would have been apropos if he had just repeated “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
The Globetrotters, er, the Hawks simply embarrassed the Celtics, who did their best to impersonate the Washington Generals in the first half, challenging their pride with a series of plays that should have served as personal insults.
But the question has to be asked: Do the Celtics players even care? Were they insulted when Hawks players were trying to best each other with 3-pointers from 30 feet away, as if it were at the end of a practice?
Were they annoyed that 32-year-old Danilo Gallinari, who has seen better days as an athlete, was able to hit a career-high 10 3-pointers, most of them uncontested? It raised another question: Were the Celtics unaware it was pretty much the only way Gallinari could score?
The blame starts at the top with team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and coach Brad Stevens. Ainge hasn’t given Stevens a complete roster for which to compete on a nightly basis. And Stevens has done a below average job of coaching those players. It’s not his intention for his team to lose 14 of the past 21 games and his players to basically give up Wednesday against a team that’s four games below .500, but here we are.
“I just told them in the locker room that nobody’s happy with how things are going,” Stevens said. “We have four games before [the All-Star] break and those four games are a pivotal four games as we’ll play all season. This is a tough one.”
The Celtics are at the lowest point they have been in the Stevens era and there seems no end in sight. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown appear to be disengaging as the challenge to turn this team into a contender increases and opposing teams are feasting on a defense that lacks the passion and desire to stop anybody.
Not only did Gallinari score 38 points, Trae Young added 32, including 17 in the last 6:12 of the first quarter. The Celtics responded from their heartbreaking loss in Dallas by giving up 40 first-quarter points and 72 in the first half. This is not the way any team with a semblance of championship aspirations responds.
The Celtics played Wednesday like they quit the moment Atlanta showed resistance. They tuned out whatever Stevens was saying and went through the motions until they were removed from the game. Brown and Tatum deserve blame because they are the leaders and are supposed to set the tone.
When asked if his messages were getting through to his team, Stevens said he is trying every method of motivation.
“I would say what I say to [the media] is not what I say in the locker room,” he said. “How you say it is definitely very important. I’ve had my moments, let’s put it that way. With that said, this team looks right now its balancing playing unconfidently and unsure with the fact that we’ve had a couple that slipped away.
“The only way I know how to get that back is to dive on the floor, is to take charges, is to sprint to help your teammates up and to fight for every single possession. I don’t know how to say it more clearly than that.”
The All-Star duo of Brown and Tatum, who will return to this floor in two weeks for the All-Star Game are the cornerstones of a team that is in a freefall. And the postgame answers are predictable. “We’ve got to play better,” “We need better starts,” “I’ll take it upon myself to do more” but nothing is changing.
Are the players tuning Stevens out? Is he the only one who really cares about the team’s success?
“As long as you got that Celtic jersey on, you should never be comfortable with losing,” Brown said. “I’m uncomfortable, it sucks for me personally and we should all as a group take the challenge. We listen to [Brad], obviously, during the game. But we have to execute it each and every night, and I think it’s been a challenge for this group to go to game to game with no time in between and execute game plans.
“And I can tell the mental focus is not there. It’s not enough. It just isn’t there.”
If the mental focus isn’t there for a team that was expected to compete for the NBA Finals, that’s a major problem. Every team has the same issues in this unusual season — too many games crammed into a tight schedule, COVID-19 protocols, the no-fan atmosphere — but the elite teams, the ones with pride and fortitude and passion for their craft and their teammates, have excelled.
The Celtics are not one of those teams.
“Listen, none of us are happy with the job we have done and I should be first and foremost on that list,” Stevens said. “I also realize we are in a situation where we have a lot of guys going through this for the first time and there is a confidence to winning that you gain from earning [wins]. We’ll make sure we’ll do everything we can to earn that confidence with our work.
“We just need to do all of our stuff better. I think we’re all stung and disappointed with how we’ve played and that I think that’s affected the confidence of the group. Instead of fighting, scratching, and clawing we have had moments where we haven’t. This team has it in them. These next four games will tell us a lot about where we can go.”
The rest of the league isn’t going to show the Celtics any mercy. This is a situation they will have to rectify themselves, but they have showed few signs of being capable of that.