When the Celtics gathered for their pregame shootaround on Wednesday morning coach Ime Udoka could tell that something was amiss. His players were not focused, and it seemed that they were not fully prepared to face the Wizards that night.
Their intensity level would need a jolt, Udoka said, or else things could get ugly at TD Garden.
“I told them that you’re going to get your [butts] kicked tonight if you come with that focus in the game,” Udoka said. “And for three quarters, we played the same way.”
There was little evidence that Udoka’s morning rant had an impact. The Celtics took the court and the coach’s concerns became visible, as Washington surged to a 116-107 win.
Last Friday the Celtics were booed off the court after getting routed in their home opener against the Raptors. They steadied themselves with a pair of road wins, including a stirring comeback that led to an overtime victory in Charlotte. But those good feelings are gone now, as Boston continues its early-season quest for chemistry, camaraderie, and answers.
“You’ve got to show up every night,” Udoka said. “You can’t just pick and choose and think you’re going to beat people.”
The Celtics mounted a pair of second-half comebacks, first slicing a 15-point, third-quarter deficit to 1 by the start of the fourth, and then nearly climbing out of a 10-point hole in the final minutes of regulation.
It is too early to call it a trend, but Boston also had frenetic, late rallies in its game against the Knicks and Hornets. It won just one of those three, however, and it is obvious that this approach is not sustainable.
“I expected us to come out and win and be at a certain level, and here at home in front of our fans, how great they are, we need to be better than this,” forward Al Horford said. “So, there’s a lot of work ahead for us.”
Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 23 points, but he missed four free throws, including two in a row as Boston was trying to craft its fourth-quarter comeback. Dennis Schröder added 22 points and All-Star Jaylen Brown was 5 for 16 with 13 points.
Brown’s mercurial start to this season has mirrored Boston’s. He erupted for 46 points in the double-overtime game against the Knicks and then scuffled through a 3-for-13 night in the loss to the Raptors. Then this week he poured in 30 points in the comeback win against the Hornets before taking another step back on Wednesday.
He recently recovered from COVID-19 and has also dealt with some knee pain, but Udoka seemed puzzled by the early inconsistency.
“I’m trying to ramp him up during the game, pump him up to get going, but the contrast of some of those previous games, especially Charlotte and the New York game, and the way you see him come out tonight is kind of mindboggling,” Udoka said.
Udoka said he will work to help Brown get off to faster starts by putting him more actions early in games. And when he sees him struggling he’ll “have to jump on it early and help him get going.”
But Boston’s sleepy offense went beyond Brown. The team registered a season-low 18 assists and had just four in the second half. At the other end of the court, Wizards backup center Montrezl Harrell caused fits for Boston with his speed and athleticism, erupting for 25 points and 11 rebounds after starter Daniel Gafford left the game in second quarter because of a knee injury.
Wizards superstar Bradley Beal, who received a warm pregame ovation from Celtics fans who have already begun dreaming about him someday becoming this team’s third star, made just 7 of 25 shots. But his teammates made up for his lack of scoring.
The Wizards took a 79-64 lead on a Harrell 3-point play with 5:54 left in the third quarter. The Celtics’ comeback was somewhat methodical, with 10 points coming at the foul line during a 14-1 run that pulled Boston within 2.
The Wizards extended their lead midway through the fourth behind three consecutive floaters by guard Aaron Holiday, the last giving Washington a 103-94 lead with 5:23 left.
“We tried to make the home-run plays when we got back in it,” Udoka said. “It happened several times, getting to 1 or 3 points and then careless turnover or gamble on defense.”
Washington led by 10 with three minutes remaining before Horford had two tip-ins in a row. Then after a Wizards turnover Schröder hit a 3 from the left corner that pulled Boston within 108-105 at the two-minute mark.
But the rally ended there. Beal and Spencer Dinwiddie both scored inside and the Celtics were unable to answer. This time there were no boos when the final horn sounded, just apparent indifference as fans trudged up the aisles and into the chilly night.
“We’ve just got to focus and bring it for 48 minutes and not just 36, not 30 minutes,” Schröder said. “We’ve just got to bring it.”