Two plays summarized the Celtics’ last-minute loss against the Golden State Warriors Friday night at TD Garden and could summarize their season so far.
First was an inexcusable foul against all-time 3-point leader Stephen Curry in the final second of the first half. With Curry launching a 52-footer on a sideline inbounds pass, Marcus Smart and Robert Williams converged and Curry caused contact with Smart.
Foul on Smart. Technical on coach Ime Udoka for disputing the call. Four points for the Warriors to extend a 10-point lead to 14.
Second, the Celtics defended frantically midway through the fourth quarter trailing by 1, and the Warriors shuttled the ball to each other, with Andre Iguodala forced to launch a 27-footer to beat the shot clock. The ball rattles in.
The first was a bad mental mistake, the second was just bad luck. Those two have combined to doom the Celtics this season, where they are one game under .500 after more than a third into the season.
It was a brutal irony the Celtics lost by 4 points (111-107) to the Warriors, meaning the Curry play was essentially the game.
Although Celtics faithful may blame the officiating, what separates Boston and Golden State is little things. The Celtics missed eight free throws in the second half. They allowed Curry to rebound his own 3-point miss (and he doesn’t miss often) and then swish his second chance (he wasn’t going to miss a second time).
The Celtics fell behind by 20 in the first half because they were outworked by the Warriors. And they had their second-half rally foiled because they failed to close out on 3-point shooters or didn’t grab defensive rebounds or wasted possessions with silly turnovers.
Boston was without Dennis Schröder (non COVID illness), Al Horford, Grant Williams, Jabari Parker and Juancho Hernangomez, who are in COVID-19 protocol.
But the reasons the Celtics are 14-15 aren’t just about injuries or COVID-19 protocol, it’s about a lack of focus, even when the moment desperately calls for it, such as Friday. They allowed Curry to score 20 first-half points, which is understandable. He’s elite.
What isn’t so acceptable is Andrew Wiggins’s 24 first-half points. In a second-quarter sequence, when Wiggins was allowed to just step into a transition 3-pointer, Udoka growled at Jaylen Brown for his lackadaisical close out.
“Really, the hustle plays,” Udoka said. “Obviously Wiggins got going a little bit and I didn’t love the physicality on him, let him walk into a lot of threes, didn’t pick him up with the same urgency we had with Curry to start. It was more so our defense.”
It’s the little things.
The Smart foul on Curry. A couple of hero-ball threes from Jayson Tatum. Nine second-half turnovers.
The Celtics aren’t close to the Warriors right now. The difference is the Warriors play the same way every night, they play the right way, they aggressively defend, they move the ball crisply, they rely on Curry but also get support from the complementary players. They follow the same blueprint and it usually results in victories.
The Celtics are so wildly inconsistent, play so rag-tag at times that it has cost them several games, including Friday’s. Their blueprint is how they played in the second half, holding the Warriors to 37.5 percent shooting, including 3 for 13 from Curry. Wiggins scored one bucket in the second half after 10 in the first half.
It was yet another case of, “Why the heck don’t the Celtics play like this more often?” But consistency and efficiency are what separates good teams from the average ones.
“There’s no moral victories,” Smart said. “I think we’ve had our fair share of those. We lost. We definitely did it to ourselves. Offensive rebounding, giving them second-, third- and fourth-chance shots. They outhustled us and they outworked us and Ime talked about it, the basketball gods rewarded them for that. We can put ourselves in that situation.
“It comes to a point now where if you’re not going to play hard, you go sit down. We can take losing but we can’t take losing when it’s our effort.”
This team continuously gets punched in the mouth first and then is forced to respond with stirring comebacks. The Celtics weren’t going to hold the Warriors down offensively the entire second half. Golden State is too good, but a better effort earlier, better quality play and more defensive intensity would have helped.
But the more deserving team won. The Warriors were more consistent, got more production from their bench and made timely baskets down the stretch.
The hope is the Celtics can finally take steps closer to the consistency they so desperately want to achieve. But for now, they have all the characteristics of an average team, one that’s going to surprise sometimes and disappoint in others.
“That would be ideal,” Tatum said when asked if the Celtics could be more consistent. “I think it’s constantly changing due to the lineups that we have and who we have available. It’s kind of hard to stay the same with different guys in and out. Kind of have a long stretch [with a healthy roster] where we see what can truly can be and who we are.”