You would have thought . . . don’t think. You would have expected . . . don’t expect. You would have assumed . . . you know what they say when you assume.
Seventy-one games into the season, the Celtics are still maddeningly, infuriatingly, and predictably inconsistent. Hence their 31-40 record. Hence their inability to win winnable games. Hence their refusal to embrace prosperity.
Such was the case Wednesday night, when Dwyane Wade and Hassan Whiteside watched from the bench in street clothes as the Heat dominated the first three quarters and then held on for a 93-86 win at TD Garden, damaging the Celtics’ playoff chances.
Boston is now tied for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot with Indiana, while Brooklyn and Charlotte are a half-game behind.
But it didn’t have to be this way. This one was on the Celtics, who entered the game with energy but then stopped defending, became predictable on offense, and had no answer for the guard duo of Goran Dragic and Tyler Johnson.
All of their misdeeds of the first three quarters meant they had to be perfect in the fourth, and they weren’t. The Celtics missed two chip shots that could have reduced the deficit to 5 in the final two minutes. Miami, which blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead Tuesday, held on despite wavering confidence.
It was an embarrassing defeat, a testament to the Celtics’ youth that they don’t take every game seriously. A testament to a second-year coach still learning how to motivate his players, and players who are still learning to become professionals.
Accountability is an issue in the locker room. The Celtics have one player over 30 — Gerald Wallace — and in-house discipline is difficult with so many new and young players. Avery Bradley, at 24, is the longest-tenured Celtic. Brandon Bass is 29 and the players call him “old head” because he has children.
Most of the Celtics’ most productive players were born in the 1990s, meaning they have little recollection of the Clinton Administration, CD players, Boyz II Men, or “Seinfeld.” Leaders are developing, and when the team is contending for a playoff spot, that’s an issue.
“We’ve been like this all season but it just happens that we’re in a playoff race and it makes things a lot worse now,” Wallace said. “Basically it seems like they were running circles around us. You can’t have that. Those are the types of games you can’t have, but they happen.”
Clunkers such as Wednesday night’s makes last Sunday’s home loss to Detroit loom larger, so much so that if the Celtics miss the playoffs by one game, they’ll point to this stretch as why they are sitting at home.
“For the first 2½ quarters, I didn’t think we played, and that’s the frustrating part,” coach Brad Stevens said. “I told the guys in there, that’s got to be on the coach if that team’s not good on that night, first and foremost. So if it happens again we’ll make whatever changes we need to make.”
It’s admirable for Stevens to accept responsibility, but the players have to police themselves, and it’s time for even the neophytes to make statements. Accountability is how locker rooms become closer, it’s how leaders are developed. No one can fear speaking up.
“We can’t come out because they’re missing guys and not have a sense of urgency, we can’t have that,” said third-year forward Jae Crowder, a Celtic for three months. “We’ve just got to know what’s at stake as a unit. This game right now, we’re playing for something. If that don’t come out and motivate you, then I don’t know what will inspire you to do that. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
Crowder was asked whether responsibility is difficult on a team so young.
“Not really, because when you play you have input,” he said. “We don’t have that many older guys, but the five guys that are on the court, if you see something, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t be vocal. Not worried about age. We’re all on the court. We’re fighting. If you see something and you want to make a statement, you make a statement, simple as that.”
Crowder, along with Marcus Smart, appear to be perfect candidates to serve as locker-room policemen. The one downside from Danny Ainge flipping the roster from old to young is a lack of experience and leadership.
The Pacers, Heat, Nets, and Hornets have locker room police, voices of reason and authority. The Celtics are a product of their youth, an entertaining but sometimes bewildering bunch because of their unpredictability.
This issue won’t be solved this season, but Thursday’s practice and film session could be critical in determining the team’s mental state and approach for the last 11 games. And if that session is quiet, there’s a real problem.
“They’re still trying to figure out everything,” Wallace said of his teammates. “They don’t really know what’s going on or what is what. It’s hard for the team, as well as everybody else. We have to deal with it. This is what we have. You have a coach and a coaching staff who’s been in the league less than five years themselves, so it’s a growing process like the rest of us.”