NEW YORK — The most frustrating aspect of this game for the Celtics was they outplayed the Brooklyn Nets in several stretches Friday at Barclays Center.
There were moments when the shorthanded Celtics ignored their injury issues and put everything together. But like a Jenga game, the Celtics would make one mistake, then another and all the blocks collapsed.
There was really nothing to show for their 109-104 loss besides Jayson Tatum again being overworked in carrying the offense and Brad Stevens still trying to figure out why his team makes so many unforced turnovers.
The Celtics rallied, then melted down, then rallied again then melted down and then sent their faithful into an infuriated state by going empty on a couple of key possessions and missing free throws in the final minute.
Boston needs all the wins it can get to claim the fourth seed in the East, especially with the New York Knicks on an eight-game winning streak. And they could have won this one on a night when Kyrie Irving was 4-for-19 shooting and the Nets shot 30 percent in the fourth quarter.
It was as if Brooklyn toyed with the game, waiting for the Celtics to make a run before turning up the intensity with a couple of plays to extend the lead again. The Celtics got caught up in that cat-and-mouse game and botched just enough plays to let the Nets walk away with an ugly win.
“It obviously feels like at times, myself included, we kind of shot ourselves in the foot,” said Tatum, who had five of Boston’s 19 turnovers. “In a game where their best player don’t shoot well and we’re coming back at the end of the game and give ourselves a chance. I know there’s a lot of plays and possessions we wish we had back.”
The Celtics had a chance to get back-to-back wins against the Phoenix Suns and the Nets, a chance to continue to boost their confidence with a tough road win. Instead, they walk away realizing their shortcomings came back to haunt them again.
The Boston reserves by Payton Pritchard, who splashed six 3-pointers, did little offensively to help the cause. The combination of Tatum, Marcus Smart and Pritchard were 29-for-56 from the field. The rest of the Celtics were 9 of 38.
Youngsters such as Aaron Nesmith are trying but make as many mistakes as good plays. Stevens surprisingly inserted Carsen Edwards to start the fourth quarter and he air balled his only shot attempt. Grant Williams missed an easy breakaway layup and had more turnovers than baskets made.
Meanwhile, the Nets brought veteran point guard Mike James from CSKA Moscow and he scored 8 points and was a plus-17 in his first NBA game in three years.
The difference Friday was the Nets’ depth and veteran bench outplayed the Celtics, who are still trying to fill significant roles with youngsters and players who aren’t equipped for the big moments. Stevens doesn’t have many options but how many times can you play lineups with Semi Ojeleye, Romeo Langford and Williams on the floor and expect a positive outcome?
Stevens is crossing his fingers that some of these combinations work but he’s going to have to decide on consistent rotations once the Celtics get healthy. Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams again missed the game with injuries while Evan Fournier returned from a nine-game absence with the coronavirus and missed all seven shots.
The Celtics will be better on most nights when those three players come back 100 percent but that will still leave the team with a weaker bench that has trouble scoring.
The frustration is apparent at times. Stevens pulled Langford 35 seconds into the second half after he allowed Jeff Green to drive past him to draw a foul. Langford was a minus-26 in his 19 minutes while Grant Williams was a minus-11.
Williams, Langford and Ojeleye, are offensive liabilities on the floor. And when they do make shots, it’s almost as if the reaction is, “Wow, (insert name here) hit a jumper.” Elite teams can’t afford to play long stretches with players who can’t consistently score unless they do something else extremely well, i.e. rebound or play defense.
The Celtics aren’t an elite team, partly because they don’t have the depth. The Nets have gone all-in on their championship quest, so the only youngster they play is Boston native Bruce Brown, who scored 15 points. But the Celtics are expecting 20-year-old Langford to match Green or Nesmith to keep pace with 3-point specialist Joe Harris and it’s honestly unfair.
The team’s lack of an experienced bench is president Danny Ainge’s fault and that weakness is only compounded by injuries to the starters. There was a reason why Jabari Parker came off the waiver wire and immediately became an immediate Stevens option even though injuries have robbed him of his athleticism.
“It looks like they’re having a hard night we’re doing a good job of guarding them and we’re doing the right things,” Stevens said. “Those two stretches (of poor play in second half) killed us and made it a difficult comeback.”
And it’s even harder when you’re using players who may not be quite ready for the moment. The hope for the Celtics is they remain healthy throughout their playoff run and don’t have to resort to some of these players and lineups in crucial situations.