Celtics coach Brad Stevens knew it would be a challenge to keep his team motivated for the final 22 games. The roster is young and inexperienced. Only Jim Mora Sr. could accurately sum up the Celtics’ chances of making the playoffs at this point.
It’s about pride in a league in which keeping that feeling is always a challenge for losing teams come March. The Golden State Warriors walked onto the court at TD Garden Wednesday night as if they were insulted this game even had to be played. They scored 12 of the first 14 points en route to a 108-88 win over the Celtics that wasn’t that close.
Fans at the Garden haven’t witnessed such misery from the home team in seven years. And Wednesday night became ridiculous. Not only did the Warriors look as if Geese Ausbie and Meadowlark Lemon were on their front line, the bored and distracted fans became enamored with a Tupac Shakur lookalike who sat behind the West basket when the Warriors raced to a 30-point lead after three quarters.
If the Celtics weren’t tanking, that neighborhood, currently occupied by Philadelphia and Milwaukee, was certainly on their GPS. It was an embarrassing performance filled with inexplicably sloppy plays, lackadaisical defense, and shabby effort. It included Andrew Bogut pulling his best Ausbie impression by reaching both arms around a dazed Jeff Green for a rebound as Green had no idea the ball was in his vicinity.
The Warriors put a major hurting on the Celtics despite missing 23 of 28 3-pointers and All-Star Stephen Curry attempting just 10 shots in 22 stress-free minutes. The damage could have been worse.
The Celtics are not concerned about victories at this point as much as development, but how much can they be encouraged by Kelly Olynyk dominating in garbage time? These final 21 games need to be at least competitive. The Celtics have to exercise better effort and passion than they did Wednesday night because it was disheartening.
Stevens understands his task of keeping his team as motivated as it was in December is going to be difficult. The trade deadline has come and gone. Players with long-term contracts have a tendency to play out the string, and those who are looking for deals are going to put up shots without much consideration for teamwork.
The Los Angeles Lakers are experiencing the same situation with a slew of impending free agents trying to make one last impression before the summer, leaving this season as nothing more than a series of public auditions, allowing for little cohesion. The Celtics hardly want to resemble the Lakers, who have accomplished little more this season than a trip back to the lottery.
If Rajon Rondo didn’t exactly exemplify leadership by staying in Los Angeles for an extra night and blowing off Sacramento, he can atone for that by galvanizing his teammates and encouraging them to play with more motivation. Gerald Wallace is out for the season and no longer can publicly admonish the team as he did for the past four months.
“I can only speak for myself,” Rondo said. “You’ve got to dig deep and find it within yourself to compete. In anything I do, I want to win. I think that’s a lot of guys’ mentality, but I can only speak for myself. You have to [stay motivated]. You can’t hang your head too low. We have a game in two days. We have to come out and give the fans something better to cheer about.”
Stevens has found ways to inject positive reinforcement into his team, but even he was stupefied by the effort after he said the team had a productive practice Tuesday. The Celtics have spent the season making a favorable impression on NBA observers by playing hard for Stevens most every night, but these types of games are becoming more prevalent, especially after there were no trades at the deadline.
“I don’t think this is indicative of our mind-set,” Stevens said. “I thought we played really poorly. I see nothing but recognition that we didn’t play well with pride that we will play better and the expectation that we are gonna come to work and be better and that is the expectation, period. I’ve heard people say that when our record is what it is, you’re playing for pride. Well that’s a lot. To me, that is a lot. It’s important that we show ourselves a lot different than we did today.”
Fifteen of those final 21 games will come against teams currently in the playoffs, meaning there is great potential for more of these Globetrotter-General outings unless Stevens and Rondo are able to somehow inspire this exhausted bunch to play as if something is at stake.
Something is at stake.
“This is guys’ opportunity on this team and our opportunity as a team to show that we have experienced some growth in competing against the best in the league,” Stevens said. “We need to be able to play a lot better against a team that’s rolling than we did tonight.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.