OKLAHOMA CITY — There isn’t much else Brad Stevens can do with this team. That’s not to say he should stop coaching the Celtics. Not at all. He is doing everything he can at this point, and his team is still wildly inconsistent.
The Celtics have made a living in the first six weeks of the season beating the teams they’re supposed to beat, and losing to those they’re supposed to lose to. While the Celtics whetted the appetites of the TD Garden faithful by taking a 12-point lead early in the third quarter Friday against the Toronto Raptors, two things were apparent.
The savvy Raptors were going to make a run, and the Celtics would be hard-pressed to respond and overcome.
They didn’t, losing 101-94, again putting them in the third tier of Eastern Conference teams, just where they resided last season. The Celtics should be frustrated. On a night they contained DeMar DeRozan, limiting his offensive impact, Norman Powell, a last-minute starter in place of DeMarre Carroll, scored 20 points and added five steals.
Powell is not the first unheralded player to surprisingly flourish against the Celtics this season. The Celtics are guilty of mental lapses. They are playing 38-40 quality minutes in a 48-minute game.
You could blame Friday’s loss on the absence of Isaiah Thomas, who also will miss Sunday’s game with the Oklahoma City Thunder with a groin strain, but the Celtics have to find a way even with nagging injuries.
Injuries could be used as the primary reason for the mediocre 13-10 start and fourth-place spot in the Eastern Conference. Al Horford missed 10 games. Jae Crowder missed eight. Thomas is not likely to return until at least Friday against Charlotte. But the Celtics are deep and talented enough to have won more games, including Friday’s. The Raptors knew that if they kept pushing, the Celtics would eventually snap.
“We have to get to the point where we’re so good at controlling what we can for 48 minutes,” Stevens said. “We have to get better more consistently for that full 48 and to be successful against this caliber of team.”
So how do the Celtics do that?
First, they have to value possessions when the situation may allow for them to take a few more chances. That means they need to build on big leads, stop with the hero ball, such as below-average 3-point shooters taking 3-pointers off the fast break.
The Celtics want so badly to please the home crowd and create excitement at the Garden that they are prone to give away sizable leads at home because of hero ball. They continue to launch 3-pointers. Open threes are acceptable but the Celtics not only take unnecessary 3-pointers when they have leads, they make too many extra passes.
Horford had a couple of turnovers Friday trying to hit Amir Johnson cutting to the basket, but catching blazing passes isn’t really Johnson’s forte. And with those type of careless mistakes, the Celtics allowed a 21-3 run.
Toronto expected Celtics’ slippage and the Celtics cooperated. There’s little Stevens can do about that from a strategical standpoint. They are well-coached. They have sufficient games plans. The players just need to calm down a little when prosperity is high, such as Friday’s third quarter.
Looking at the numbers, the Celtics shoot worse in the second half of games at home (42.2 percent) than on the road (47.5 percent). They shoot worse from the 3-point line and commit 1.4 more turnovers in the second half of games at TD Garden than when they’re on the road.
It seems the Celtics play better on the road because they are more composed. Thomas is the team’s only ball-dominant player. Horford gets as much delight out of an assist or rebound as a basket. Crowder doesn’t take enough shots, and when he does they are often 3-pointers. Marcus Smart has no shooting conscience — like Thomas — but he’s not a good enough shooter to make a consistent offensive impact.
The Celtics essentially are a bunch of unselfish guys. And that’s a good thing, except when they become consumed with making the extra pass and it isn’t the right pass.
“I’m a team guy, I always try to make the game easy,” Horford said. “Just make the right play. That’s always my approach.”
With Thomas out, the Celtics need to get Horford more touches. And the maximum-contract player needs to assume a more offensive role.
The Celtics’ issues are solvable. They have enough talent to be an elite team. But they are making a difficult transition to being a team that executes precisely in the second half, especially against quality opponents. They have been guilty of long lapses, and then when they try to rally in the final minutes and need every play and break to go their way, it doesn’t happen. They fall short.
Friday’s game against the Raptors was no ordinary December game for the Celtics. It was a litmus test, a benchmark for their progress. And going into the second quadrant of the season, Stevens and his club are extremely flawed.