The Celtics weren’t going to play 18-4 ball all season. There was going to be a point where shots stopped falling, the defense slipped back to early season form, and good fortune was just a fantasy.
But consecutive home losses to what was 9-20 Orlando has to be a major concern. The Magic led for most of these two games. Neither win was a fluke. And on Sunday, the Celtics botched late-game execution while the youthful Magic made winning plays.
The 95-92 loss at TD Garden is proof the Celtics aren’t as good as we thought they were, at least not yet. Even without Jayson Tatum, who was in St. Louis and missed the game because of personal reasons, the Celtics should have been good enough to win.
But as has been their pattern this season, the Celtics only flourish when shots are going down. They didn’t Sunday. The Celtics are collectively in a shooting skid, so much so that Sam Hauser, usually the most reliable 3-point shooter, raised his arms and looked to the sky when he hit a 3-pointer, his only make of the game.
In the end, the Celtics botched two inbounds passes, allowed the Magic to collect three key offensive rebounds, and committed 17 turnovers, many unforced. They are trying too hard to recapture their previous spectacular form, trying spectacular plays such as low-percentage passes or Grant Williams asking for the ball and then chucking a 3-pointer in the final seconds in an act of hero ball.
After spending the past few weeks as the No. 1 seed, the Celtics are officially second by percentage points to the Milwaukee Bucks. Their issues started far before this back-to-back home set with the Magic. The Celtics haven’t been right since their trouncing of the Phoenix Suns nearly two weeks ago.
They have won once since, that improbable comeback against the Los Angeles Lakers that required 44 points from Tatum.
An average offensive game would have earned a victory Sunday but the Celtics were far below average, shooting 34.8 percent and then missing 35 3-point attempts. The quartet of Jaylen Brown, Derrick White, Williams, and Al Horford were 5 for 28 from beyond the arc.
“We shot the ball so well at the start, it was naturally going to be a small decline,” coach Joe Mazzulla said. “We just have to maintain our confidence and our trust. We have really good shooters. We just have to stick with it.
“Outside of the result, I thought we played a great game for a majority of the game.”
The Celtics were better defensively, but it was one of those days where lack of execution offensively met misfortune in certain defensive possessions. For example, prized rookie Paolo Banchero entered with 24 3-pointers for the season on 27.3 percent shooting. He hit six 3-pointers Sunday, including a couple of key late shot-clock jumpers.
Admiral Schofield, a college teammate of Williams, entered averaging 4 points and had 13 made 3-pointers all season. He hit three in nine second-half minutes. The Magic played well, they hit big shots, but the Celtics have to be better than they were this weekend.
“We are pressing,” guard Marcus Smart said. “We are putting a lot of pressure on ourselves. We’re not going to shoot the way we’ve been shooting and playing the way we’ve been playing all the time. We have to understand we’re not perfect and it’s OK not to be perfect and just go out there and play.”
Many contenders have gone through skids in this first third of the season, and the NBA is more balanced than in previous years. There are no cupcake opponents. There are no easy games unless you play well enough to make those games easy. The Celtics thought they were getting a nice weekend break with these two home games against the Magic.
Friday’s loss turned Sunday’s game into one of the more important of the season. Malcolm Brogdon said Friday that his team didn’t play hard enough. They played hard enough Sunday, but they aren’t good enough right now to win when they aren’t executing efficiently on offense. Brown, Smart and Williams combined for 13 turnovers.
“It was just one of those games; it felt like the lid was on the rim,” Brown said. “The ball was moving around, it was finding guys. I got a lot of good looks and some of those didn’t go in. It’s a long season. I don’t let one game dictate the rest of everything. Let’s pick it back up and be ready to go in the next one.”
The question is how the Celtics escape these doldrums. They have now lost four of five games and all three opponents have played their best games against them. A couple of stabilizing practices this week could help, but Mazzulla also has to respond with some new wrinkles, lineups, and play calls to jumpstart the offense. When the team is collectively slumping, Mazzulla can’t cross his fingers and hope they return to form sooner or later.
The pressure is on Mazzulla to make some subtle changes because the 3-point barrage offense has sputtered and frustration is growing.
“If you thought we were going to shoot lights out for the whole season, I wish, it never goes like that,” Brown said. “It’s a part of why you love basketball. I know we missed a lot of shots as a team I know we can make but that’s why you love the game. You don’t hang your head. You’ve still got 50-plus games. So what we shot 30 percent against a team we should have beaten. We learn from it, we move forward and we pick each other up.”