As much as the Celtics have tried to downplay their slow start, attributing their struggles to a revamped lineup, new roles, a tough schedule or whatever, there are some serious problems in that locker room.
Because they are losing and because they look horrible in the process, evidenced Wednesday night by falling behind by 26 points to the Knicks, losers of six straight, there are some unhappy fellows on this team and it’s going to take some time and victories to soothe feelings.
Some players are angry about their playing time. Others are angry when they’re playing. They don’t trust each other on defense. The offense can’t score when they don’t hit 3-pointers. And the frustration is showing in their putrid effort, which again was nonexistent until the second half.
The Celtics are a mess and just when you thought it was bad enough after Kemba Walker’s 43-point effort Monday, Trey Burke, banished by two previous teams, drops 29, including the clinching 3-pointer on single coverage, in New York’s 117-109 win.
As if the Celtics hadn’t learned anything from Monday, they decided to allow Jayson Tatum to defend the speedy Burke alone. On a night when Burke hit a plethora of big shots, he hit one more as if the Celtics needed one more example that he was hot.
This is becoming a disturbing pattern. Jamal Murray scored 48, Devin Booker 38, Donovan Mitchell 28, Walker 43 and now Burke is the latest guard to light up the Celtics’ guards.
It was Kyrie Irving, the victim of some of these barrages, who suggested the Celtics should start to double-team hot players.
“Uh, I don’t know, I don’t know,” Irving said when asked if the Celtics should have doubled Burke. “I think that our pick and roll, our trust, I think that really comes down to trust.”
So now the truth comes out. The Celtics don’t trust each other yet defensively. They aren’t giving maximum effort. Players are surly about playing time.
The Celtics didn’t lose their ninth game last season until Dec. 21. And that loss to the Knicks dropped their record to 26-9. They are now 9-9.
So far, this much ballyhooed season can’t get any worse.
What’s going on with this team?
“I don’t even know, for real,” guard Terry Rozier said. “I can’t speak for everybody. I don’t know. We’ve got to win some games. That’s all I can say.”
Brad Stevens has spent his five years being the Mr. Rogers of NBA coaches, crediting the other team, mostly looking at the bright side, even saying Monday he saw some encouraging things after Walker’s 21-point fourth quarter beat his team.
On Wednesday, he had little positive to say, instead assessing his team with brutal honesty.
“I just don’t know that we’re that good,” Stevens said. “Maybe it’s not a wake-up call if you keep getting beat. We have to play better. It’s not because we’re not capable of being good. You’re good if you play good and the results are speaking for themselves.
“This is a lot of things; we have a myriad of issues we have to fix.”
The question is, when do these matters get fixed? After every practice the Celtics say they are improving. After every game (except Wednesday) they are seeing positives that will help down the road.
But down the road won’t matter if the Celtics are fighting for the eighth seed. There has to be a sense of urgency to win now. The season is now 22 percent over. So when do these real Celtics show up? Or are these the real Celtics?
If they are, then this may be one of the more disappointing seasons in the team’s history.
The one constant of the Stevens era is that the Celtics always, always, played hard. That’s not the case this season. It’s inexcusable for the rebuilding Knicks, who lost by 16 to Toronto, 26 to Orlando, 25 to Oklahoma City and 14 to Orlando during their six-game losing streak, to build a 26-point first-half lead.
And that’s when the Celtics inexplicably decided to play hard, cut the deficit to 3 in the final minute until Burke hit the winning 3-pointer, sending the subliminal message that the Celtics can’t just get away with falling behind and rallying constantly.
They aren’t that good. They’re playing with the arrogance of the Warriors without the championship rings. It’s embarrassing.
“We’re not upholding ourselves or playing to that Celtic way and the standard we need to have,” center Al Horford said.
“We still all see the potential that’s there and our focus needs to be on playing better and our effort level. We should never talk about effort and I think that’s the one thing I feel like that’s not there all the time.
“It’s there some of the time, not all the time, especially on the defensive end. If we’re not giving it every time we’re going to find ourselves in these positions a lot like we’ve been recently.”
It seems the players can diagnose the problem, but the question is whether the Celtics can rectify those problems soon.
“I think teams come in here or when we go on the road and feel very comfortable,” Irving said. “We start paying attention to detail, start doing the little things and voilá, we’re in the game. I think that at this point, it’s just tiring. [There’s] no more time to wait.”