It’s safe to say, without any hesitation or reservation, that the fate of the Celtics will be determined by the players and the players only.
After Tuesday’s disheartening 119-115 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team trying to tank to improve its draft stock and that had succeeded in that quest with 14 losses in a row, the Celtics are a team that has no identity, little passion, and absolutely no fire.
Brad Stevens can tell his players to play harder, not to foul early in quarters, to cover shooters that are hot, and to attack the rim instead of settling for the contested 3-pointer, but they apparently don’t listen.
This team doesn’t mind its pride being taken away bit by bit. On Sunday, the Charlotte Hornets dominated Boston without two of their starters, and generally played harder than the Celtics for 48 minutes. That seemingly did nothing to affect the team’s outlook in preparation for the Thunder, who had lost by 29 points at Philadelphia on Monday.
Boston rarely led in this game, watched as the Thunder’s young players made play after play, and then totally gave up midway through the fourth quarter after yielding a 16-4 run to relinquish a 1-point lead.
There won’t be an easier game on the Celtics’ remaining schedule. They blew a chance to pick up an easy win and they were still the better team — on paper — without Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Robert Williams.
But the Celtics again came out in a trance, as if they were waiting for the Thunder to fold. That happened last month in Oklahoma City when the Celtics were outplayed for three quarters but then took control in the fourth.
It’s mystifying why a 32-30 team plays with such arrogance and disrespect for the game. The Thunder won despite committing 27 turnovers. But again, no NBA team plays the Celtics with any fear.
There are no more, “Oh man, we’ve got the Celtics tonight” concerns. The Celtics don’t scare anyone, and that’s even with a full roster. The perception is “play hard enough against the Celtics and eventually they’ll give up.” That’s the personality of this team. There’s 10 games left in the regular season. This is who they are.
Jaylen Brown said the players didn’t come out with a sense of urgency. Why? They got their butts kicked two days ago, yet they played as if they hadn’t even read the scouting report on the Thunder.
“Tonight I feel like we didn’t have that sense of urgency that we needed, across the board,” Brown said. “And a team that has young, talented players came ready to play and we got beat. We’ve got to come in and have some pride and play with some urgency, especially after a tough game against Charlotte two days ago where got our [butts] kicked. Everybody should have come ready to play with more urgency. And we didn’t for whatever reason.”
Why no urgency?
“Your guess is as good as mine. I am not sure,” Brown said. “But when we play the way we know we can play, we’re really tough to beat. We play with that sense of urgency. I thought some guys had it but we didn’t have it across the board. And if we show up, we’re going to get beat. We don’t have a team that cannot show up and win games. We’ve got to bring it.”
It’s the same bad habits or perhaps the wrong coaching philosophy that encourages taking any open 3-pointer.
The Celtics are 14th in the NBA in 3-point percentage but attempted 49 3-pointers, which is 14 above their season average. That’s lazy basketball. Just chucking up threes, hoping to spark a rally. Marcus Smart missed his first nine, many of those uncontested because the Thunder know he likes to shoot but just isn’t very good at it.
And he fully cooperates by launching threes as a means of changing the momentum instead of making the extra pass or attacking the rim. Boston isn’t a good 3-point shooting team. It’s average. The Celtics are pretty much average at everything besides toughness and intensity, which are painfully below average.
Quality teams win Tuesday night’s game, despite the Thunder playing well. Quality teams don’t make a critical defensive mistake late and leave Ty Jerome open for a 3-pointer when he’s already converted two 28-footers. Disciplined and focused teams don’t allow Oklahoma City’s group of developing players to gain confidence so they make big plays in the fourth quarter.
Oklahoma City scored 41 points in the fourth quarter on 62 percent shooting.
There are 19 days left in the regular season and the Celtics still have no idea how they’re going to play from one game to the next. They obviously aren’t listening to Stevens, who needs to start benching players who lack effort or who aren’t disciplined in key stretches.
Stevens’s history is he allows the players to police themselves. He’s not going to deliver a bunch of “rah-rah” speeches. This isn’t Butler. They shouldn’t need to be motivated nightly because the opposing team is trying to embarrass them.
So the question is, how much does this Celtics team really want to be good? How much do these players want to win for not only one another but themselves? At this point, they seem completely content with these constant humiliating losses sandwiched between a couple of decent wins.
They lost to the Miami Heat in the bubble last fall because the Heat wanted to win more. And that lack of fortitude has become the Celtics’ DNA. Desire to win, passion, work ethic and determination can’t be taught in 10 games. You have it, or you don’t.
The Celtics don’t have it and it’s unrealistic to believe they will suddenly acquire these necessary championship characteristics in a few weeks.
Stevens’s constant optimism that improvement is coming won’t change that. The Celtics’ fate is really not up to him anymore.