You could almost hear Brad Stevens telling reporters after yet another horrid Celtics defensive effort to wait until the offseason, when he can make significant changes. He wouldn’t call out his team’s weaknesses but he knows they are plentiful. He knows in his heart this group just doesn’t work well together.
How else would you explain the Celtics allowing an inexcusable 79 first-half points in the biggest game of the season? How else would you explain 35-year-old Miami swingman Trevor Ariza scoring 15 points in a 6-minute, 32-second span of the second quarter?
There are no more excuses or explanations. The Celtics are just not a very good team, regardless of that yet again too-little, too-late comeback during their 130-124 loss Sunday at TD Garden. The team doesn’t defend consistently. The Celtics are mentally fragile and unengaged and they wouldn’t get motivated if they listened to DMX’s Greatest Hits on repeat.
They are a numb team, a team that gets by on talent and only plays hard when it absolutely has to. The Heat took this game seriously, jumped out to a double-digit lead and then flat-out embarrassed the Celtics en route to a 26-point halftime lead.
“That would fall on me,” Stevens said. “We have not been good on several occasions this year starting games. We’re small and we have to fight. We have to be super hard playing, super physical and super difficult to play against and we weren’t in the first 24 minutes. When we’re not completely engaged for whatever reason, we’re not good.”
Boston rallied, cut the deficit to 6 points on a few occasions, and outscored the Heat, 71-51, in the second half, which serves as even more infuriating material for Celtics faithful because this team is capable of beating elite teams.
But there’s something wrong here. Perhaps it’s the coaching, and Stevens said he takes responsibility for the first half. Usually, in situations like this, when the team doesn’t respond to coaching or plays unmotivated for long stretch, the coach gets blamed and loses his job.
Take the situation in Atlanta, where the Hawks were underachieving under Lloyd Pierce and he got fired for it. Nate McMillan took over and the same guys have gone 23-11 with a chance at home-court advantage in the first round. This isn’t to say Stevens should be fired, but he definitely needs to take major blame for these shortcomings and perhaps have more influence on the roster moving forward if he knows he doesn’t have the personnel to defend adequately.
“We’re slow to react to the ball moving,” Stevens said. “We’re not quite on a string. Last year, we were better with our ball pressure. This year, we’re a step slow.”
In the first halves of the Celtics’ past two games against the Heat and Bulls, they have yielded a combined 22 3-pointers. Both teams nearly matched their season averages in the first half.
That’s desire. That’s busting your butt to close out or knowing the opponents’ personnel enough to not leave Duncan Robinson alone at any moment or not allow Tyler Herro (hasn’t he burned you enough?) to dribble up the floor unguarded and launch an uncontested 3-pointer.
The defensive mistakes were glaring and embarrassing and it’s about pride. In the second half, when the Celtics made that critical decision that actually playing defense helps win games, they held Miami to 5-for-15 from the 3-point line.
But again, by the time they do decide to play NBA-level defense, they have to be absolutely perfect and the Heat hit some big shots down the stretch to stave off the rally.
“If you just lose the game by 30 and the guys in front of you were just better, you can kind of look at the game and see where you kind of messed up,” guard Evan Fournier said. “But when you fix things by just being more aggressive and turning it up, it shows a lack of physicality, in my opinion. That’s something that can’t happen.
“Talking about it is not enough.”
No NBA team should be good enough to score 79 points on an engaged and interested defense in the first half. The Heat are 25th in the NBA in scoring at 107.3 points per game. But when you are allowed to constantly shoot open 3-pointers or the opposing defense doesn’t care enough to stay disciplined, then 79 points are pretty easy and the Celtics looked completely overwhelmed.
So the question is whether the Celtics should just accept this is who they are, play out the string, get bounced out in the first round or even the play-in tournament, and reconstruct their roster in the offseason. Or can they undergo the necessary heart transplant before Tuesday’s rematch?
The sense of urgency just isn’t there and it really hasn’t been present all season. There was no bigger regular-season stage: a game against an archrival to get a better seed and avoid the daunted play-in tournament, and the Celtics walked out onto the Garden floor, on Tommy Heinsohn Day, and looked like they’d rather be getting a root canal.
How many ways can the players tell Stevens, “Hey Brad, we really don’t want to be here?”
It’s time for Stevens to play the players who actually want to show Celtics pride and bench the ones who don’t, regardless of egos or salaries. The “we can’t figure out why we can’t play consistently well” is an excuse that has been used all season and it’s old. They should have figured it out months ago.
But they haven’t and here we are. The Celtics are the most disappointing team in the NBA. They are destined for a play-in tournament and who knows how they will react to having to play themselves into a first-round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets or Milwaukee Bucks. While teams like the Washington Wizards and Golden State Warriors are playing their guts out and feverishly trying to make the play-in tournament, the Celtics are cheating the game with their lackadaisical and unfocused play.
At this point, they don’t deserve any better than being bounced from the play-in tournament and then spending the offseason trying to repair a broken roster with fleeting desire.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.