PORTLAND, Ore. — The Celtics were riding a four-game winning streak at the start of this five-game road trip. After a couple of mid-October hiccups, they were looking more and more like the powerhouse the NBA expected them to be.
But on Sunday night, after Boston stumbled against the Trail Blazers, 100-94, to close out this five-game swing with an ugly 1-4 mark, fiery guard Marcus Smart had seen enough. So he went into the locker room and made that clear to his teammates.
“Smarty is an emotional guy,” forward Marcus Morris said. “What he said was real. He said we’ve got to fix this [expletive]. He said, ‘It’s not OK. It’s not OK. We need to fix it.’ And I agree with him, 100 percent.”
On Sunday, for the third consecutive time, the Celtics trailed by at least 20 points in a game. Just like always, there was a rally. But so far this year, the rallies don’t seem to end as positively as they did last year. This is not how the Celtics planned the start of this season.
“We needed this,” point guard Kyrie Irving said. “We’re not as good as we think we are. I said it at the beginning of the season. The excitement is done. It’s real basketball now.”
The Celtics have flaws, to be sure. They sometimes do not play with urgency until it is too late. They do not get to the free-throw line enough, they might rely on 3-point shooting too much, and they give up massive scoring games to individuals too often.
But it is also true that they have had quite a difficult start to the season. They have played just four home games—tied with the Wizards for the fewest in the NBA—and they have already faced the four teams with the best records in the East and two of the top three teams in the West. The coming weeks should offer a respite and a chance to build a rhythm, as just two of Boston’s next 17 games come against teams with winning records.
“We have challenges,” Irving said. “We have barriers to get over as a team and individually. I’m going to be the most patient out of everyone. I’m not going to get too frazzled, too high or too low, or stuff like that. It’s a long season.
“I just understand that for us to be special we just have to get through some challenges.”
After the game, Irving wondered if the Celtics might benefit from the presence of a 14- or 15-year veteran who could help them realize how long this season will be, and how much time there is to fix what is ailing them. Really, though, the Celtics have enough players with experience who should be able to do that.
“It probably will help us, the reality check that we might not be as good as everybody said we are at this moment,” forward Jayson Tatum said. “So we’ve got to get back home. I know everybody wants to go back home, and we need to figure some things out.”
The Celtics trailed by as many as 21 points in the first half on Sunday, and they were on the verge of falling behind by even more.
But they climbed back behind a scorching run of 3-point shooting. Boston drilled seven 3-pointers during a six-minute stretch, including three by Tatum in a span of just 91 seconds. The last 3-pointer of the surge, by Irving, pulled Boston within 71-66 with 4:35 left in the third.
The Celtics had just two offensive rebounds in the first half, but gathered six of them in the third quarter, three of which led to 3-pointers.
“When we’re desperate and urgent, we’re pretty good,” coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ve got to do a better job, and I’ve got to do a better job, of making sure that we start games that way.”
The Blazers extended their lead back to 13 points by the start of the fourth quarter, but the Celtics then made another run, this time a 16-3 burst that was capped by a Morris 3-pointer that tied the score at 86.
Boston could never quite grab the lead, though. With 2:20 left, Irving pulled it within 95-93 with a layup, but the Blazers answered with a basket inside by Jusuf Nurkic. After Horford hit one of two free throws to make it a three-point game, Al-Farouq Aminu drilled a deep 3-pointer from the right arc to stretch the lead back to 100-94 with one minute left. The Celtics did not threaten again.
“We just don’t hunt great on offense until it’s desperation time,” Stevens said. “And we spent a lot of time in desperation time on this trip. It’s been a disappointing trip.”
Tatum had 27 points and 8 rebounds and Irving added 21 points and 6 assists for Boston. Damian Lillard had 19 points and 12 assists to lead the Blazers, who outrebounded the Celtics, 55-42. Portland won despite committing 21 turnovers.