After another putrid home loss, the Celtics can’t deny they are in disarray.
They entered this four-game stretch — at home against the Lakers, a home-and-home against the Nets, and at home against the Pistons — hoping to win all four and distance themselves from the dreaded .500 mark.
They instead went an embarrassing 1-3, and at 19-16 face a rugged three-game trip to Chicago, Memphis, and New York (Knicks). Wednesday’s 99-94 loss to the Pistons, in which the Celtics allowed 33 fourth-quarter points and were helpless to stop Reggie Jackson on the pick-and-roll, was as an infuriating a defeat as there has been all season.
The Celtics were in control and led by as many as 13. Detroit was inept with the ball for the first three quarters. Suddenly, the Pistons scored 7 of the first 9 points of the fourth, and the Celtics relented. They backed up and took cover, unable to withstand Detroit’s physicality.
They settled for jump shots. Isaiah Thomas missed 14 consecutive field goals in one stretch before coming on in the fourth quarter, and the bench was abysmal. The Celtics are a good team when they play with cohesion, but there remains a white elephant in the locker room.
There is no set rotation. On Wednesday, David Lee and Tyler Zeller registered DNP-coach’s decisions. And Lee, a veteran who helped the Warriors win the NBA championship last season, is privately stewing but remaining professional.
Lee has played poorly this season, the worst of the Celtics’ big men. But he believes he can help. He said after the game that Brad Stevens has told him he is officially out of the main rotation, although Stevens promised playing time Thursday against the Bulls because of Chicago’s wealth of big men.
Lee doesn’t just want to play when desperately needed. He wants to be part of the rotation, but his play and the Celtics’ other big men have not allowed that.
“I want what’s best for the team, so we’re going to have to see how it plays out,” Lee said. “Once again the most important thing is making sure the Celtics get a W in the win column. They could get a victory every game. We’ve been up and down as a team, and Coach is trying to figure out a way to find some consistency, and we looked pretty good in Brooklyn [Lee didn’t play] and we didn’t as well tonight, and we’ll see what he decides to do.
“I definitely know how to stay in my lane and play my role. While Coach tells me [I’m out of the rotation], that’s frustrating to me and I don’t agree with that, I was also very clear he was the coach and I respect him and respect anybody else that’s making the decisions.”
Playing rotations have been an issue all season. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge put together a balanced roster with several big men who can contribute. Stevens has had to make difficult decisions concerning playing time but they have also been inconsistent.
Zeller has basically been on a yo-yo all season. There have been times when he has played well and then sat the next game. On a night when the Pistons bullied the Celtics in the paint in the second half with mammoth centers Andre Drummond and Aron Baynes, Zeller did not play.
Meanwhile, the Celtics bench was a 5 of 23 from the floor with eight rebounds. The Pistons’ bench collected 25 rebounds.
The players have whispered all season about needing consistent playing rotations. First it was Jae Crowder, and Thomas hinted after Wednesday’s game that rotations could be an issue.
“I’m not going to blame just one thing but we still don’t really have a set rotation,” Thomas said. “Not to blame Coach or anything. That might be one of the reasons. But we can’t keep blaming that. The next guy has got to be ready, if you’re playing 20 minutes or two minutes. That can’t keep being an issue.
“I don’t know the reason. I want to find out the reason so we can fix it and stop having these types of games.”
When asked what type of rotation he would like, Thomas said, “I don’t know, a set one. I think guys know when they’re coming in. It’s hard for some guys [not knowing playing time], but as a professional you’ve got to be ready, but you can’t put that on Coach. Inconsistent minutes give you inconsistent play.”
Is that why the Celtics have been wildly inconsistent this season? Rotation minutes could be a critical issue, one that needs to be addressed soon. Stevens has shuttled starters, changed rotations, and used all 12 available players at different stretches.
NBA players are creatures of habit. They like to know when they are going to play and when they are going to sit. Players such as Thomas and Crowder, who are cemented in the starting lineup, are content, but the rest of the players appear unsure of their roles, and at times unsure of themselves.
With such uncertainty, Stevens is going to need to make some tough decisions and stick with them, or else the road to April will remain rocky and unpredictable.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.