ATLANTA — No NBA team wants to admit it is soft, regardless of how many excruciating losses it has suffered, no matter how many leads have been blown or plays botched in critical moments. Brad Stevens basically intimated that’s the case following another astounding Celtics loss, probably the most damaging of the season.
After his team’s 109-105 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night at Philips Arena, a game the Celtics led, 74-52, early in the third quarter, Stevens made every indication that his team is soft without saying the exact word.
He gushed about Atlanta’s second-half physicality, its ramped-up defense, the three charges taken and the ball pressure that forced the Celtics into countless poor shots. He kept mentioning the word “physical” when it came to the Hawks and kept suggesting how his team needed that same formula.
The frustration is bubbling with the mild-mannered, second-year coach as the Celtics again wasted a game they had controlled, allowing the Hawks to rally by just playing harder. And that annoyed Stevens.
“I thought clearly they were the aggressor and more physical,” he said. “The game can be summarized in a play or two and I have a couple vividly in my mind where we were not quick enough to the ball and it’s probably a symbol of our struggles.
“And until that changes, because that’s part of this recurring theme, you’re hoping instead of knowing. And if you are hoping, you’re probably exposed.”
Tuesday seemed like the perfect time to break their second-half doldrums. The Celtics played a brilliant first quarter, and led by 12. They extended the lead to 16 at halftime and to 22 with 10:40 left in the third. And then the teams started trading baskets, and then a 13-2 run became a 28-11 run and suddenly the Hawks were the more confident and spirited team, realizing their opponent would eventually wilt as it often has in the early season.
“Hey, those guys are going to score some, they’re good players,” Stevens said. “But at the end, I don’t want to sound like a broken record either. I’m trying to stand up here and answer the questions as honestly as I can while still understanding there’s 67 games left and until we change, I’m going to sound like a broken record.”
The collapse was similar to others this season. The Celtics began getting cute offensively with fancy passes or quick shots. They then begin missing those same jumpers that swished through in the first half and the opposing defense gets more intense, exposing the Celtics’ lack of a dependable scorer.
Jeff Green scored 14 first-quarter points but finished with just 25 and one field goal in the fourth. Boston actually fell behind by 9 points after a Dennis Schroder layup with 3:35 left but fought back. In a play that typifies the season, Green had a chance to tie the game in the last 20 seconds. He put a ball-fake on DeMarre Carroll, who leaped at Green and made contact but no foul was called.
Green then dribbled to the free throw line and shot an open jumper that rimmed out. Schroder sneaked under Jared Sullinger and stole the rebound. Kent Bazemore’s streaking layup with 6.4 seconds left sealed the victory for Atlanta.
It was one of those nights for Green, who looked unstoppable in the first half (16 points) but was just 3 for 8 from the field for 9 points in the second half. The Celtics shot 35 percent after the break, getting outscored, 59-39. Once again the Celtics had no defensive answer for Kyle Korver, who scored 13 of his 24 points after halftime.
Schroder, filling in for an ineffective Jeff Teague, scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half as the Celtics looked bewildered, yielding yet another rally.
“It’s real tough but we’re putting ourselves in that predicament,” Green said. “We’ve got to bring it upon ourselves to not let [the collapses] happen. The game is made of runs. We’ve just got to continue to be aggressive.”
When asked why his second-half touches were limited: “That’s not my call. You’ve got to ask coach. But that’s not my call. It’s not really my call to call every play for me in a position. It’s a team game. They did start to double team from the baseline. That’s what happens when you start off like that [strong].”
Stevens didn’t seem like a coach with a lot of answers. He is visibly disappointed in the second-half struggles and the fact that his team has a reputation as a team that can’t finish. Opposing teams appear to understand that large deficits mean little because the Celtics are unable to finish games.
“That’s something that we have to change; that’s exactly right,” Stevens said. “We have to change it. And I think there’s a lot of things that that entails. Some of which I’ll speak of right here and some of which I’ll avoid speaking of right here. I’m disappointed and until we become tougher and more physical when things get tough, it’s going to be the same ol’ story.”