Before Sunday’s game, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was asked about the dangers of not equaling the Los Angeles Clippers’ early intensity.
“If you don’t match it, you get blown out,” he said. “And they’re capable of blowing anybody out on a given night anyways.”
It was unclear if the Celtics were throttled because they were unprepared, or if it was simply because the Clippers tend to throttle teams. Regardless, Stevens’s primer was eerily prescient.
The Clippers defeated the Celtics, 119-106, and that score doesn’t accurately indicate how thoroughly they controlled the game’s flow. They played fast and free, and they looked very much like a Western Conference power riding a seven-game winning streak.
Many of their jump shots came without a defender in their line of sight. Many of their rebounds never had a chance to land anywhere else. When the second-half lead ballooned to 35 points, some fans at TD Garden decided they had seen enough, and you couldn’t blame them.
“Tonight,” Stevens said, “we just got manhandled.”
The Celtics’ reserves made a fourth-quarter push against the Clippers’ backups, slicing the deficit to 11, but there was never a sense that Los Angeles’s lead was truly in danger. Coach Doc Rivers brought his starters back, they brought the lead back, and the Celtics took a step back at a time they can least afford it.
The Nets defeated the Lakers on Sunday and moved past Boston and into eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings. The Pacers grabbed an impressive win over the Dallas Mavericks and are tied for ninth with the Celtics at 32-41. The Hornets — Boston’s opponent Monday night — are lurking just a half-game behind.
In the locker room after this game, Thomas said, Stevens told the players to have a short memory, to forget about the loss, and concentrate on grabbing the next win.
“Our focus is on the Hornets now,” Thomas said.
The point guard led the Celtics with 19 points and seven assists in 26 minutes. Tyler Zeller added 16 points. But Boston’s starters were mostly ineffective against the Clippers’ dangerous first unit, as they were outscored, 102-43.
The Celtics have frequently been carried by their second group recently, though Stevens has said he constantly considers new starting combinations. Thomas has been diplomatic about coming off the bench while making no secret about his desire to be a starter. His stance was no different after Sunday’s loss.
“If Coach puts me in the starting lineup, I’d be happy,” Thomas said. “If he doesn’t, it is what it is. I definitely can help. That’s my game, bringing energy and making plays. So if he calls my name and I’m in the starting lineup, I’m going to contribute and play basketball the way I know how.”
To be fair, it is unlikely that any lineup shift would have made much of a difference against the Clippers. J.J. Redick made 11 of 15 shots and finished with 27 points. Chris Paul had 21 points and 10 assists, and Los Angeles won comfortably despite missing 16 free throws.
“Paul was in charge of the whole game,” Stevens said. “He was really good. And Redick is playing at a ridiculous level.”
With 5:55 left in the third quarter, Blake Griffin made a 7-footer to give his team a 92-57 lead, its largest. The Clippers led by 27 points with 9:19 left, and soon after that, Rivers sent his starters to the bench to rest.
The Celtics went on a 15-2 run that made it 111-97, and Rivers brought his starters back with 4:16 left.
“Our second unit came in and they thought they were just going to keep scoring,” Rivers said, “and they didn’t realize the reason they scored in the first half is because they kept getting stops.”
Gigi Datome drilled a 3-pointer to pull Boston with 11 points, and the fans began to believe in an impossible comeback.
The Celtics intentionally fouled Clippers center DeAndre Jordan often over the game’s final minutes. And the strategy was effective, as he made just 1 of 8 free throw attempts during one stretch. But the Celtics were unable to capitalize, and the earlier deficit was just too great.
Even when the Celtics have fallen recently, they have mostly been competitive.
The lone exception was the 110-79 loss to the Cavaliers March 3. After that game, Stevens was unusually critical of his team, and it responded by winning seven of its next eight games. It remains to be seen how the Celtics will react to this poor effort, but it is obvious that there is no time to sulk.