The missed 3-pointers, many of them wide open, many the Celtics worked so hard to create, reached the point of being laughable Wednesday at TD Garden.
It was as if the Celtics were playing pop-a-shot with the basket moving 60 miles per hour in each direction. And the 38 misses in 42 attempts perhaps lend to the assertion that this franchise indeed is cursed, with bad luck and misfortune making as many guest appearances as Joan Rivers on “The Tonight Show.”
Two days after that abysmal loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, or G-league and backups dressed as Timberwolves, the Celtics outdid themselves with a putrid shooting performance against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Their 91-82 loss was yet another low point for this organization.
There were high hopes for the Celtics when Ime Udoka took over as coach and Brad Stevens reshuffled the roster. But 35 games into the season, the Celtics have 16 wins and have lost nine of 13 since that gritty Dec. 1 win over the Philadelphia 76ers put them a season-best two games over .500.
Blame COVID-19 protocol, but that’s just a convenient excuse. The Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Reggie Jackson and dug deep into their hardship signees to get bench minutes. The Celtics weren’t close to whole either, but plenty good enough to win this game.
Their starters were 1 for 28 from the 3-point line. Payton Pritchard played 34 minutes and was a minus-25. The Celtics lost despite taking 20 more shots than the Clippers and missed 17 threes — in the final quarter.
This season has reached absurdity and it’s a combination of circumstance, questionable coaching decisions and a lack of mental fortitude by a team that seems unfazed by these excruciating losses.
On Christmas against the Bucks, the Celtics played with force until four minutes left and then relented when their superior opponent pushed back. They responded Monday against the Timberwolves with 2½ solid quarters before reverting to bad habits, losing focus and panicking in the fourth quarter.
On Wednesday, they played hard enough, still made a ton of mistakes but couldn’t hit an open 3-pointer. NBA players practice 3-pointers incessantly. It has become the most crucial shot in an NBA game, so 38 misses in 42 attempts is nearly impossible to fathom.
So what now? There’s 47 games left and optimism is deteriorating quickly. The Celtics have descended from a darkhorse contender in the Eastern Conference to lucky to reach the play-in tournament in about six weeks.
The strong voice of Udoka and his open criticism of players seems to have no effect. Instead of pouncing on an opponent that was equally affected by injury and COVID on the first game of a long road trip, the Celtics responded with 40 first-half points.
Instead of shredding the Clippers’ zone with ball movement and cutting, the Celtics approached it like a Calculus final and tried breaking it by firing 3-pointers, which is exactly what Los Angeles desired. The fans grew impatient by the third quarter, knowing they were watching a team that’s completely unsure of how to win and how to execute consistently.
“You can’t let it become a mental thing and get hesitant,” Udoka said of the shooting. “Honestly, you look at what we’ve gone through this year and not to make excuses, we’re getting guys back every game. I mentioned it before, there’s not a lot of carryover positively or negatively from game to game. We have to find consistency, regardless of who’s playing.
“It gets frustrating at times but you’ve got to stay confident with teammates, confident in the work they put in every day. You look at it as a marathon and how we’ll get to where we want to get at the end of the season by being confident, knocking those shots down.”
Bringing the Celtics back among the elite teams in the Eastern Conference is likely a larger and more complex project than Udoka anticipated when he accepted this job six months ago. The Celtics haven’t progressed since losing that Eastern Conference finals series to Miami 15 months ago. They are running on a treadmill, winning, losing, winning and then losing again. And this season has been a carbon copy of last year, when the issue was supposed to be Stevens failing to reach the players.
Udoka is experiencing the same motivating issues. The players say they want to improve but commit the same errors or encounter the same misfortune as before, creating an impatient fan base that’s ready for Stevens to make a series of trades and start over.
That’s a drastic decision, but these losses aren’t convincing anyone that something less extreme will be effective. The two choices are to be patient, allow Udoka’s system and his voice to carry more weight and hope they can become a more consistent and successful team or just start making changes because this current culture is fruitless with zero potential long-term success.
“I think it’s all a learning process for everybody,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “I don’t shy away from it, from being in this role, having the opportunity to lead a team. I haven’t been in this role very often but I accept. We’re learning amongst the process. We’ll be better off and I think that guys are figuring things out. I’m not making any excuses whatsoever.”
So this has become a “process” and we may not see the Celtics team that was expected to contend in the East until maybe April. That’s a new development but one that’s realistic considering this team still doesn’t know how to consistently play well or win.