There is such a thing as playing the game well but not the right way.
The Celtics did not play the game the right way Friday night at TD Garden, even when they raced out to a 51-23 lead, which included Jaylen Brown trying an alley-oop off the backboard to Robert Williams and Jayson Tatum going one-on-one against the Nets like it was the All-Star Game.
The Celtics were hitting shots, but something smelled foul from the beginning. They have the propensity to cheat the game when they have big leads, treating their opponents like the Washington Generals when they feel the game is over. The only thing missing Friday was the bucket of water and Tatum standing at the free throw line calling signals like Geese Ausbie.
Except, the Nets aren’t the Washington Generals. They don’t get paid to get pounded. They’re a prideful team that noticed their opponent was messing around with the game, vulnerable to a big rally, not taking their task seriously.
The result was an 83-39 Brooklyn run, as the Celtics lost their edge, their swag, and were relegated to looking like a bunch of chumps in the second half, unable to stop Mikal “Michael Jordan” Bridges, unable to run a cohesive offense, and unable to explain why they decided they were worthy enough to treat their opponents with such disrespect.
The Celtics lost, 115-105, dropped further behind the Bucks for first place in the Eastern Conference, and tried giving the ol’ “no lead is ever safe in the NBA” explanation. But that’s manure. This was different. The Celtics led by 28 with seven minutes left in the second quarter.
And while that’s relatively early in an NBA game, all the Celtics needed to do was avoid getting outscored by 29 points for the remaining 31 minutes and they would have won. That’s not a high standard.
Coach Joe Mazzulla pointed to analytics, and said he never felt comfortable even with the 28-point lead because his club wasn’t taking enough threes. But this had little to do with actual basketball or the number of 3-point shots or Brooklyn’s defensive adjustments. This had to do with being mentally prepared for adversity, knowing the Nets would make a run and having enough fortitude to withstand the charge and prevail.
“I don’t have an answer for that,” Mazzulla said when asked why his team relented and then was unable to get its edge back. “It’s human nature. You have to battle human nature if you want to separate yourself [to become] the teams that don’t fall into that trap.
“But I’m not going to overreact to that. It happens. It happens in the NBA. I’ve seen it in other games and we have to be able to learn from it. I’ll be more upset if it happens again.”
So what will it take for Mazzulla to overreact? Blowing a 40-point lead? Wasting a 28-point lead against a team that had lost four games in a row and lacks a true superstar (although Bridges looked that part Friday)? It was Game 64, and the Celtics are still learning lessons?
A veteran club should not let this happen, and the Celtics are filled with veterans. NBA teams make runs, of course, but the Nets were inept for the first 15 minutes of the game. They looked defeated and the only way they could revive themselves was with the Celtics’ help, and the Celtics were eager to oblige.
“We started off well, lost our composure a little bit as a group, they kept rolling, we didn’t necessarily regain it, and it just became tough to come back,” Tatum said. “Honestly, there’s nothing we can do. We move on. Essentially, don’t harp on it.”
When asked if he viewed the loss with disbelief, as the sellout crowd at TD Garden did, Tatum said, “Disbelief? Nah, we didn’t play well. They played better than we did. It’s not disbelief. I don’t even know if it’s anger. We play too many games to be angry. Move on, getting ready for the next one.”
This was not one of 82. Every NBA game is not the same. Just as the win over the 76ers Feb. 25 wasn’t a normal win, this was not a normal loss. The Celtics led by 28. They are supposed to be one of the best teams in the NBA, healthy and ramped for a deep playoff run. Instead, they are vulnerable. Williams left the game with a hamstring injury and the Knicks, winners of eight consecutive games, come to TD Garden on Sunday night.
Will the Celtics take this opponent seriously? Are they capable of maintaining their focus for 48 minutes? Or is the answer simply taking more threes than the Knicks?
Friday was about pride, or lack thereof. The Celtics assumed the Nets would lay down because they wanted an easy night. They had just eked out a win over the Cavaliers, and the Knicks and Cavs were ahead on a back-to-back.
Championship-caliber teams show up every night, and while they may not always play their best, they give their best. The Celtics have been through too many disappointments over the years, have allowed too many teams to make runs, and played too many games together to allow this type of slippage.
The Celtics aren’t championship caliber yet, and treating Friday’s loss as just an aberration isn’t the way to deal with their lack of focus. There needs to be some mental adjustments, personal reflection, and deflating of egos.
Because this debacle shouldn’t happen again.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.