The Celtics are in the difficult position where they have to prepare for the postseason while trying to still win every game to avoid playing one of the three elite teams in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The first step is rest. Jayson Tatum will miss Tuesday’s game against Oklahoma City with his nagging ankle injury. But it’s a rest night. Tatum has been wearing himself thin and perhaps a low point was a couple of frustration plays Sunday where he didn’t get back on defense or that lazy lob pass back to Kemba Walker that resulted in a Terry Rozier layup.
Tatum needs a break and Celtics coach Brad Stevens said last week that they were going to target a rest date and this is the best opportunity. The Thunder are severely shorthanded and have lost 13 in a row and 16 of their last 17. Walker will also get a day off to rest the left side injury that caused him to leave the loss to Charlotte briefly in the second quarter.
If the Celtics are planning properly, this will enable Walker to return Wednesday for the rematch with the Hornets, which becomes one of the bigger games of the season.
It’s difficult to dismiss Sunday’s loss as just fatigue or running into a hot team. The Celtics did not approach the matchup with shorthanded Charlotte with the necessary intensity, got punched in the mouth and then never really recovered, partly because their defensive intensity was so poor.
The Hornets got everything they wanted and their ball movement was exemplary, something Stevens has been trying to stress to his team all season.
“We need to be better; we need to play better,” Stevens said. “Credit Charlotte. They were terrific. They made every shot. They were moving that ball. They were flying up the floor. They were physical. Their switches were great. They were protecting the rim. They blocked a ton of our shots.”
It wasn’t that the Hornets played better. They played with more passion as if the game was more important to them. That’s most disturbing. The Celtics have had issues with motivation all season and no one can figure out why.
Stevens was as short-tempered with timeouts as he has been in recent years. He called a timeout after that lazy Tatum pass to Walker as a wake-up call. As Celtics faithful can attest, Stevens is conservative with his timeouts. He usually uses them to send messages. On Sunday, that was necessary.
But it still didn’t work. By the time his team tried to match Charlotte’s intensity, it couldn’t. The Hornets were already feeling too good about themselves.
Stevens may have to start docking playing time for players who aren’t giving 100 percent effort or who just don’t play intelligent basketball. Marcus Smart single-handedly brought Boston back in the third quarter with a pair of 3-pointers and a couple of layups, but he then returned to his hero-ball ways by trying to draw a foul on a 3-point attempt late in the third period that led to a Miles Bridges buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
That’s not intelligent basketball and the Celtics have been guilty all season of not playing the game the right way: fouling too much or unnecessarily, settling for contested 3-pointers when the extra pass could either create a better shot or players trying to do too much offensively and then turning it over.
Usually, there is a general reason for the lackadaisical play from teams. They don’t have enough talent. They have tuned out the coach. There are players on the roster with personal agendas. But the Celtics claim to have none of those issues.
They have no reason why they came out so flat in what was a significant game.
“I can sit here and say anything (but) we’ve just got to go out there and do it,” Walker said. “(Sunday) we took a step back. We have to figure out a way to get back on track.”
When asked when the Celtics can begin to regain consistency, Walker said: “I’m not sure.”
Walker isn’t alone. The Celtics are out of answers. They can’t figure why they aren’t playing consistent basketball, why after an impressive win over Phoenix -- holding the Suns to 86 points -- they played an uneven, turnover-filled game against shorthanded Brooklyn and then respond with one of their worst performances of the season.
Stevens is frustrated. The players have no idea how to take positive steps toward reaching their potential and they have yet to play a game with a healthy lineup. Evan Fournier hasn’t made a shot in his two games back. Walker doesn’t play in back-to-back sets. Jaylen Brown and Tatum are beat up from carrying the team the entire season and there’s only 11 games left in the regular season.
The good news is the best opponent in that final stretch is the New York Knicks in the season finale. The Celtics are capable – although not likely – to win their final 11 games. So it’s smart for the club to use Tuesday to give Tatum and Walker a break.
But something is going to have to change soon with this team other than good health. If not the Celtics season will be over in a mere couple of weeks.