LOS ANGELES — The Celtics are nearly a third into this first Ime Udoka season, and the rookie coach seemingly has no clue how his team is going to perform on any given night, and that’s a major concern.
In the second game of a back-to-back set in Los Angeles, the Celtics played a strong opening quarter, a horrid second, and then spent the second half chasing the Clippers, some plays looking like a well-coached bunch, the next like the Five Stooges.
The Celtics are a .500 team after their 114-111 loss, a game they trailed for the final 31:32 to a Clippers team without seven-time All-Star Paul George and two-time NBA champion Kawhi Leonard. But if you know these Celtics, they don’t fare well with adversity and also have the tendency of ignoring their scouting report.
Hence, the emergence of Brandon Boston Jr., a 20-year-old second-round pick who scored a career-high 13 points in Monday’s win over the Portland Trail Blazers. Against the Celtics, he looked like a combination of Stephen Curry and Kobe Bryant for a 12-minute stretch, scoring 18 of his 27 points in the second period to help the Clippers take control.
“I heard he scored 46 in a G-League game,” said Celtics guard Dennis Schröder about what was in the scouting report about Boston Jr. “I mean you’ve got to respect everybody. He came in and busted our [expletive]. He won them the ballgame.”
In one sequence, Boston Jr. heaved a 28-footer that swished to end the first half. Four minutes into the third, an unguarded Boston Jr. (maybe the Celtics thought he would eventually miss) splashed a fourth 3-pointer and proceeded to give the Staples Center crowd the Michael Jordan shrug.
“It felt like we were surprised by him,” Udoka said. “And we specifically talked about him. I mentioned, know your personnel and know who’s playing, and the kid’s getting a lot of run. That’s disappointing here.”
Udoka immediately called timeout after Boston Jr.’s demonstration. For the umpteenth time this season, his team was being embarrassed. Boston Jr. was trash talking. The Celtics were unraveling and just when they hit bottom — a 21-point deficit to a team without its two best players — they rallied with stifling defense, only to come up one possession short.
“We played with some effort, had some pride,” Udoka said of the second-half rally. “We talked about it at halftime, that bad second quarter.”
When asked if he has a hard time determining how his team will play, Udoka said: “The effort and the inconsistency is frustrating at times. To play as well as we did in the first quarter and when you look at it, we won three quarters. To play the way we did in the second half and not muster up that energy in the first half, it’s a little frustrating.”
This franchise should be beyond moral victories such as winning quarters. This isn’t a 2-15 NCAA Tournament matchup. Losing by 3 when you trailed by 21 should not be a source of pride. The Celtics are better than that, or at least they should be.
Udoka is facing the same issues his predecessor, Brad Stevens, did last season. He has no idea how his team will approach each game. The Celtics should have been angry following a listless performance against the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, and they should have played harder against the Lakers after two days off and a win over Portland.
“I think we should know how we’re going to come out,” forward Jayson Tatum said. “I think sometimes we dig ourselves a hole and you see (in the second half) we play a lot faster, we lock in defensively. And then some of those possessions when we’re flying around, doing all the right things, but we get an unlucky bounce. That’s a product of being too easy in the first half.”
But this team doesn’t pleasantly surprise very often. It has the tendency of following a good effort with a porous effort, a good quarter with a terrible one. On Wednesday, the Celtics were their most formidable opponent. They committed 23 turnovers, 10 in the second half when they were desperately trying to rally, throwing awful alley-oops or low-percentage pocket passes.
The Clippers were melting down in the fourth quarter, but managed to make enough shots to prevail. That’s what happens when you put yourself in a position to have to be perfect to win. The Clippers played harder, so they got all the breaks. The Celtics ended up with a participation trophy.
It’s hard to fathom the Celtics will somehow play .660 ball to get to 50 wins. That means they are headed for a lower playoff seed or the play-in tournament. With this treacherous December schedule that includes the Suns, Bucks, and Warriors in the next three games, the slide will get worse.
What’s even more disheartening is Udoka can’t guarantee his team will come out motivated in any of those three games. He’s hoping they do, but he ain’t sure about that. He was relegated to chewing his team out after an 11-point halftime deficit and Boston Jr.’s scoring barrage. It resulted in the Celtics playing harder but not necessarily better.
“I don’t know, you probably don’t know, and that’s why you’re asking me and I don’t know either,” Schröder said of the team’s inconsistency. “We’ve got to come out and do it for 48 minutes. It can’t happen that we just do it for two or three quarters. Everybody’s just got to take pride and especially the starters who started tonight, to make sure we come out and give everything we have. We just can’t get in the hole down 20 and then try to play.”
The Celtics are still searching for an identity, a reliable method for winning. The least they could do to improve is play harder more often, approach the game with an intent and fortitude that does not allow for such long stretches of slippage, that ensures they are forced to play pristine ball in critical moments just to eke out a win. That has to be exhausting to play because it’s certainly exhausting to watch.