CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It seems Celtics coach Brad Stevens’s ultra-thick patience with his flawed and inconsistent team is wearing thin. He watched his club get completely outplayed by a team missing two starters and sinking in the Eastern Conference.
The Hornets embarrassed the Celtics on Sunday at Spectrum Center, leading for the final 47 minutes in a 125-104 win. This was supposed to be the easiest of the trio of games that could determine the Celtics’ playoff seeding, but they responded with a dismal performance despite a nearly full healthy roster.
The Celtics can’t keep making injury excuses as to why they are so inconsistent and unwatchable at times. The Hornets were without LaMelo Ball and former Celtic Gordon Hayward but yet collected their most assists in seven years and a season-high with 21 3-pointers.
It was here Stevens made a rather significant indictment of his team and its approach and passion.
“I said this at halftime,” Stevens said. “I thought we were guarding them like we were expecting to play against ourselves, like we were going to hold it for an extra dribble instead of … they just flung that thing around.”
But 3-pointers are much easier to make when the defense doesn’t close out or simply doesn’t give enough effort to defend. It would be more understandable if one Hornet went off for a 40-point game or an unusual individual performance. That wasn’t the case.
Six Hornets scored in double figures and four scored 20 or more, meaning it was an all-around horrible defensive effort. Effort is the key word here. The Celtics just didn’t try at times. It was Jayson Tatum looking at his 3-pointer rattle out of the rim and then getting beat back down the floor for a Brad Wanamaker layup or Tristan Thompson doing the old “Hey you guard that guy” while Cody Martin drove for an uncontested layup.
Some of these stretches were embarrassing and in front of a nationally televised audience. Just when it appears the Celtics are establishing a more cohesive personality and better fortitude, they revert to old ways.
It reached a point where Tatum became so frustrated with the officiating and missed layups that assistant coach Evan Turner gave him some strong words on the bench as he listened. A few minutes before, Tatum knocked down a chair after heading to sit down following another frustrating stretch.
Stevens is fresh out of excuses. Only Robert Williams missed this game with injury, so this was pretty much the Celtics team we’re going to see from now on, and still it fell behind, 23-8, and then never got closer than 7 points, finally falling apart early in the fourth quarter.
“We got outplayed, outcoached, outhustled, they were the better team today,” Stevens said. “We were slow on some of these (defensive) reversals, like we were just staring at the ball and the ball was whipping right past us and all of sudden they’re into the shot. The toughest team sets the rules of the game and they set it right from the opening tip and we were on our heels the whole night.”
Stevens has long understood the limitations of this team and in many instances he’s been forced because of injuries and lack of roster talent to put players in positions in which they just can’t succeed. The Celtics aren’t good enough anymore to ease into a game against a hungry team. Perhaps in seasons past they come back and win this game.
But this season, when the Celtics make questionable decisions, it costs them dearly. Such as Marcus Smart, with the Celtics down 9 in the final possession of the third quarter, attempting to draw a foul on one of those 3-point heaves he gets 10 percent of the time. No call, the ball bounces to Miles Bridges and he hit a 30-footer at the buzzer. Smart was arguing with officials and didn’t get back to defend Bridges.
“In the past we may have been able to get away with a subpar performance,” Stevens said. “This team hasn’t won a game all year that I can remember where we played subpar. That’s a good indicator that we need to be on. We need to be better. Our ‘B’ game is not going to be good enough, no matter who’s available.”
Jaylen Brown returned from a two-game absence to score 20 points and appeared fine after a shoulder issue. But he again admitted the Celtics weren’t ready for what Charlotte had to offer. Is that on the players or the coach?
“We weren’t as prepared to play as they were,” he said. “They came out of the gate with a better energy than ours, but there’s nights like that. We think, for the most part, we’ve been playing good basketball, I just think the Hornets just came out and really got it going and once a team gets going, it’s hard to stop that.”
But there were no answers to whether this is who the Celtics really are, a wildly inconsistent and underachieving bunch that’s heading for a first-round playoff exit. Kemba Walker couldn’t answer why they played such a listless game. Brown said it’s the exception and not the rule.
“I think you just move on to the next game,” he said. “We’ve played good basketball over the last few weeks. Maybe this game is being held to our past because we’ve been up and down in the past. We’ll see [the Hornets] in the couple of days and we’ll see.”
At this point, it’s difficult to envision the Celtics “flipping the switch” and turning into the playoff juggernaut that was expected in December. This is pretty much who they are and the team’s faithful has to hope that somehow the players want success enough to fight a little harder for it than they did Sunday.