WALTHAM — While the source of blame for the lack of effort, lackluster starts, midgame lapses and fourth-quarter breakdowns remains in question, the one certainty is that the Celtics are facing a crossroads.
They begin a difficult three-game road trip Wednesday in Brooklyn followed by games at improved Indiana and division-leading Toronto and if the Celtics continue to play the way they did in Monday’s listless 104-95 loss, it could turn into three embarrassing defeats.
So the team tried to move forward Tuesday by scheduling an impromptu practice.
And while the players took some responsibility, coach Brad Stevens insisted the blame is on him for the team’s lackadaisical effort.
The Celtics were known as a team that always played hard for Stevens in his first season, but their performances of late have been increasingly disturbing — falling behind by 22 to Charlotte, 27 to Orlando, blowing an 11-point fourth quarter lead against Brooklyn, and facing a 28-point deficit against the Mavericks.
Playing hard and with desire are fundamentals for any NBA team, so Stevens was left to explain why they are lacking in those categories.
“We just got outhustled, we got outplayed, just not an acceptable thing for any of us and that starts with me. I definitely have been looking at it introspectively the moment I left the gym,” Stevens said. “[The effort] has been good most of the year but [Monday] night, it’s on me. They’re wrong [about it being their fault]. I just thought the other team looked faster. They had more purpose towards the ball.
“A coach’s job is to have your team put their best foot forward. That is a coach’s first and foremost responsibility.”
After Monday’s game, Jared Sullinger said he and his teammates were guilty of playing “hero ball,” trying to make the big individual plays to help the team. Others blamed missed shots that led to mental lapses such as turnovers.
Jeff Green, who did not speak with the media following the loss, took the responsibility.
“I think our defensive intensity has gone down,” said Green, who scored 7 points with one rebound against Charlotte. “We’ve just got to continue to pick it up. We’ve got to go back to the drawing board and continue to get better. We’ve just got to play harder. Teams are outplaying us.”
When asked why the team may have lapses in intensity and passion, Green said, “There’s so many games, you’re not going to be up for every game. It’s tough. I think lately with the way we’ve been playing, we’ve been down on ourselves, so I think the effort, we just have to pick up. Our offense is going to come. We’re going to have games where we don’t shoot the ball well but I think we let our offense dictate our defense.”
The Celtics have not had a captain since Rajon Rondo was traded on Dec. 18 but Green, the team’s leading scorer and most accomplished player, accepted fault.
“It starts with me,” he said. “I blame myself for the way we’ve come out and played. As a leader, you have to lead by example and I don’t think I’ve been doing a great job of that. So you can put the blame on me if you want.”
The next step for Stevens is to find remedies. With Jameer Nelson and Marcus Thornton almost fully healthy, the Celtics have 15 players who are capable of contributing, but very few standouts. The chore of finding capable and productive rotations since the Rondo trade has been arduous.
“If it means we have to change some ways we are approaching things, then we have to do that,” Stevens said. “If it’s personnel changes in certain moments, we have to do that. We’ve all talked about the rotations and our evenness and it’s not getting any more separated, let’s put it that way, especially after [Monday] night.”
Nelson, who joined the team less than three weeks ago, said he notices the maddening inconsistency and the changing lineups.
“This is definitely a unique team, you have so many guys in the rotation, so many guys getting 15 to 22 minutes,” Nelson said. “So it’s equal opportunity. I’ve never been on a team where I played 14, 15 minutes. It’s hard to go out there and be who I am with 14 minutes. But I’m not going to complain about it or go to coach and tell him I need more minutes. That’s not my job to say that.”
Nelson said he talked to the team Monday.
“I told them you don’t have to execute every play well, you don’t have to get there defensively, you’re gonna make mistakes,” he said. “But as long as you play hard, you won’t be down 20 every game. We’re starting to do that for whatever reason. In the second half we play extremely hard, some of the calls goes our way, we cut into the lead. If we do that from the beginning we won’t go down by 15 or 20 as much.”