As the Celtics have floundered during the start of this perplexing season, they have talked over and over about the ways they would snap out of it.
They have said they just need to play a complete game. They have said they just need to see their shots go in. They have said they just can’t let one opposing player catch fire against them.
And then they nod and insist that everything will be fine. And maybe it will. But on Wednesday night, after witnessing this season’s nadir, a 117-109 loss to the lowly Knicks, coach Brad Stevens pushed back against the notion that his team had received yet another wakeup call.
“I just don’t know that we’re that good,” he said during an unusually candid press conference. “Maybe it’s not a wakeup call if you keep getting beat. We have to play better.”
The Celtics, who were pegged by most as the favorites to win the Eastern Conference, are now 9-9 and riding a three-game losing streak. If the regular season ended now, they would be the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.
The season does not end now, of course. And it will not end until 64 more games are played. There is still plenty of time to fix this, but eventually the sand will start slipping through the hourglass.
“We just can’t wait anymore, honestly,” point guard Kyrie Irving said. “From myself, everybody else as a collective, to our coaching staff, we just don’t have time to really be waiting to kind of see if guys are going to give that extra effort, including myself.”
The Celtics’ struggles have been confounding because they essentially added Irving and Gordon Hayward to the team that was one win from the NBA Finals last season. But Stevens said Wednesday that this team is not playing with the same personality as it did last season.
“That’s the easiest way to describe it,” he said. “And then the 50,000 issues that are below that, we have to tackle one at a time.”
We don’t have the time or space to count up that many here, but plenty have been quite visible. The Celtics have missed shots and failed to get to the free-throw line and failed to push the pace. They have allowed guards to torch them, like Jamal Murray and Kemba Walker did. And, perhaps most alarmingly, they have not played with the intensity that has defined Stevens’s teams.
“Our effort level — we should never talk about effort,” forward Al Horford said. “And I think that that’s the one thing that I feel like it’s not there all the time.”
The Knicks brought their bumpy 4-14 record to TD Garden, having lost in New York the previous night while the Celtics rested. They have been the perfect elixir for so many struggling teams, and there was good reason to believe they would be once more.
Instead, they made 15 of 30 3-pointers, blocked 11 shots and rolled the Celtics with a 65-point first half, as boos poured down from the upper reaches of TD Garden. The Knicks never trailed in the game.
New York led by as many as 26 points, and still had a 21-point cushion with just under 10 minutes left.
Even in these recent losses, the Celtics have often rallied from massive deficits. But unlike in past years, they have consistently fallen just short. This time, they surged back and pulled within 110-106 after Hayward capped an 8-0 run by hitting a 3-pointer with 1:05 left.
“I just think that it’s tiring at this point when we show flashes of brilliance and then we put ourselves in a deep hole and then we’re consistently coming back,” Irving said. “We can’t play like that.”
Boston still trailed, 112-108, and the Knicks had the ball when Jaylen Brown came up with a steal and blitzed the other way before he was fouled by Emmanuel Mudiay with 34.8 seconds left.
Brown pushed Mudiay after the play and was called for a technical foul, but Tim Hardaway Jr. missed the ensuing free throw. Brown, who is shooting just 61.5 percent from the foul line this season, made his first try but missed the second.
At the other end, Trey Burke calmly drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key to stretch the lead back to 115-109 with 12 seconds left. At that point, many of the fans who had stayed around for the comeback decided they had seen enough, and the Celtics could not really blame them.
“It would have been a shame for the Celtics to win that game,” Stevens said. “The Knicks deserved to win. We gave ourselves a chance, but that’s all it was.”
Irving had 22 points and 13 assists for Boston, but made just 9 of 25 shots. The Celtics were 23 of 32 from the foul line and 10 for 33 on 3-pointers.
Burke finished with 29 points to lead New York, which overcame 17 turnovers and grabbed its lone win this season against a team that currently has a winning record.
After taking Thanksgiving off, the Celtics will now begin a three-game road trip, and they are just 4-6 away from TD Garden this season. As Stevens reflected on this latest loss, he thought back to a quote from 76ers coach Brett Brown, who once said that the storm is part of the job.
“And I’m looking forward to getting a chance to really dig in,” Stevens said, “and hopefully we can weather it.”