The most interesting and perhaps distressing comment from coach Brad Stevens after the Celtics’ infuriating 105-98 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, one in which they blew a 22-point lead and shot 21 percent in the second half, was about the extended length of the NBA game.
That eight-minute difference between the NCAA game and NBA game is what could separate the Celtics from a 40-win team and a 17-win team. Those eight minutes are where games are won and, in Friday’s case, lost. The Celtics played well enough to win through three quarters. Milwaukee was ready to bolt back to Wisconsin for their home opener.
But NBA players sense vulnerability and teams are going to play mind games with the Celtics this season because of their inexperience and lack of cohesion. Opposing teams, on certain nights, are going to give the Celtics a chance to win. The teams are going to play poorly, make turnovers, give lethargic efforts, and make poor decisions.
And if the Celtics can’t build a big enough margin or finish off opponents, they are going to lose on most nights. The Bucks shaved a 22-point deficit (72-50) with seven minutes left in the third quarter to 12 by the end of the quarter.
The Bucks found a liability. They picked on rookie Vitor Faverani, using experienced Zaza Pachulia to score at will, and Stevens made no adjustments to force the Bucks to shoot from the perimeter.
The game lasted too long for Stevens on this evening. He expected his guys to finish off the game as they started and they couldn’t. Brandon Bass and Jeff Green were a combined 0-for-9 shooting in the fourth quarter. On a critical possession late in the fourth quarter, Gerald Wallace missed a 3-pointer, then committed a critical turnover with 33.9 seconds left and the Celtics trailing by 1.
Wallace has been this team’s truth serum and he has called out the players for poor habits. He was at it again Friday, angry that some teammates took victory for granted, playing a 48-minute game as if it were 40 minutes.
“We got selfish,” Wallace said. “Instead of worrying about winning the ball game, we were more worried about our stats and getting points. It showed. We went from a team that was together and moving and playing together in the first half to a team that was five individuals out on the court, everyone playing for themselves, and it showed on the defensive end. I really don’t understand it. I’m trying to figure out what’s more important, winning or padding your stats. It’s very frustrating to see the personality and the way our team is playing.
“This is going to be a long season for us and we’ve got to stay together. Tonight we did that for the first 24 minutes, and the second 24 minutes it was everybody for themselves.”
It’s confounding what the Celtics are doing through the first two games. MarShon Brooks has not played but is capable of boosting the bench scoring. Kris Humphries was stellar in his short stint in Toronto and would have given Pachulia some resistance, but did not play Friday.
Without a true point guard, Stevens opted for Wallace to play point forward and initiate the offense, which failed miserably. The Celtics were relegated to Brandon Bass (6-for-11 shooting, 17 points) trying to create his own shot or Green (4 for 13, 13 points) going to that swooping, righthanded runner. With no go-to scorer, the Celtics had to rely on ball movement in the fourth quarter, those critical final eight minutes Stevens is referring to.
The Celtics recorded just two assists in the fourth quarter. They looked confused and beaten, and the Bucks saw signs of that in the third quarter. Stevens has to prepare his teams to finish out games.
“I think we changed the way we were playing in the second half,” guard Courtney Lee said. “In the first half, we were getting out running, sharing the ball, playing together. It was fun to be out there playing. In the second half it was more stagnant; more people trying to do [isolations] instead of sticking with what got us the big lead.
“It definitely snowballed today and we need to stop it so it doesn’t continue.”
Opposing teams realize that Boston is now a prime location to get a victory, especially when the Celtics’ playing rotations are unpredictable and their chemistry is in the early stages. If their disjointed style continues into November, it could be a very ugly month and playing 40 solid minutes isn’t good enough — not in the NBA.
“How long is [lack of chemistry] going to be our excuse,” Lee said. “We had training camp, we had preseason, and we got a couple of games under our belt. That excuse is running thin. We gotta continue to go out there and play 48 minutes. Everybody gotta be upset about this.”