NEW ORLEANS — The disrespect and disregard for the Celtics has become apparent. There were several examples of that in their 113-104 loss to the Mavericks on Saturday night in Dallas.
It was Luka Doncic doing the Slovenian Shimmy after hitting a first-quarter 3-pointer; or Harrison Barnes patting Aron Baynes on the backside after he closed out on a 3-point shot too late; or J.J. Barea gashing the Celtics with his masterful pick-and-roll drives or just swishing a 30-footer against a disheveled defense.
Marcus Smart was right. Opposing teams can’t wait to play the Celtics, catching them at a low point, during which their communication on defense is lacking or nonexistent. Opponents are visibly letting the former Eastern Conference favorites know they aren’t that good.
It’s causing frustration in the locker room. Kyrie Irving admitted he almost “lost it” during a first-quarter timeout when there was confusion on how to guard Doncic, the 19-year-old rookie who burned the Celtics in the first half.
Honestly, effort was not an issue Saturday for the first 3½ quarters. The Mavericks just played remarkably well. Barnes, who averages two 3-point makes per game, hit five in the first half. Dallas, a team that averages 11.9 3-point makes in a game, hit 10 in the first half, yet the Celtics trailed by 3.
But in what is becoming a Murphy’s Law season, the Celtics couldn’t get any breaks in the second half. They, of course, fouled too often. They allowed Barea to control the game with his dribble penetration, and they couldn’t get consistent defensive stops, and then couldn’t score consistently themselves.
The season is now about 25 percent over, and average is what the Celtics are — and may be this season. They would now have to go 40-22 the rest of the way just to win 50 games. They will be fighting for a fourth or fifth playoff seed for the rest of the season. It’s no longer early.
“That’s the adversity we have to deal with,” Smart said. “At times like this guys can tend to point the finger at one another and go their own way, but this is a tight-knit group and we care for each and every one in that locker room, and we’re going to stick together.
“But right now, we’re all trying to put our heads together and find out what we’ve got to do to change this around. We’ve got to be the first ones to punch teams in the mouth.”
It’s no coincidence that opposing guards are having their best games against the Celtics’ defense, and it’s not all the fault of the backcourt. Boston’s pick-and-roll defense was atrocious Saturday because the big man and the guard didn’t communicate, allowing Barea to turn the corner for layups.
The Celtics feared DeAndre Jordan on lobs so much — as they should —
so their big man stuck to him and didn’t help the guard as much on the pick, springing Barea to get inside. And when Barea got hot, his teammates fed off the energy. Wesley Matthews hit two threes. Maxi Kleber hit an open long ball. Thirty-five-year-old Devin Harris scored 9 points in nine second-half minutes.
The Celtics have been besieged with misfortune, but they are fully responsible for their fate.
The offense is stalling because the ball movement is stopping. Irving took one-third of the Celtics’ shots in the second half, and he made four. Jaylen Brown was playing well before he injured his back. He needed more offensive opportunities.
Al Horford got discouraged when he missed some open jumpers and just stopped shooting. Heads are slumped. Guys are upset, and frustration is boiling over.
Irving said the Celtics are playing way too passively in the opening minutes. He pointed out Dallas’s opening possession, which was a Matthews 3-point shot off a down screen. The Celtics allowed a wide-open shot. Matthews drained it, and the Mavericks punched first.
“Getting down in the hole, we always have to fight back in the first quarter,” Irving said. “It’s not so much that teams are better, but when we put ourselves in a hole, they just manage the game pretty well. As a growing team we have to understand that first possession matters more than anything else to start off the game and how we flow into it.”
It appeared the Mavericks played so well in the first half because the Celtics offered no resistance. They were trying but offered very little physicality. Smart, the team’s most passionate and fiery player, got a technical for shoving Kleber with 12.7 seconds left in the game. The Mavericks were celebrating late in the fourth quarter. Like most teams that face Boston, it was a big win for them.
“I didn’t see [Doncic’s] shimmy; I didn’t see that,” said Smart, who appeared to get fired up just hearing about the gesture. “I ain’t too fond of it. I think that’s the problem. I think that might be one of the problems. If a guy’s going to shimmy and all that, you’ve got to make him pay for that. You can’t let him get away with it.
“I’m not saying you go out there and do something dirty, but you’ve got to let them know. If guys are feeling comfortable enough to do that, then that’s a problem.”
So what are the Celtics going to do about it? It’s going to take a lot more than just getting upset to turn around this season. It’s going to take a collective effort from the opening tip and a selfless mentality that hasn’t been present consistently through 20 games.