As most of the Celtics dressed and quickly left the locker room following their stunning 123-112 loss to the Clippers on Saturday in which Boston coughed up a 28-point lead, the sound of a medicine ball slamming against the floor echoed from the adjacent weight room.
A few minutes later, forward Marcus Morris emerged, still wearing his game shorts. And if there was any doubt about whether he was letting out his frustrations in the weight room, he then let out some more with his words.
“For me, it’s not really about the loss,” Morris said. “It’s about the attitudes that we’re playing with. Guys are hanging their heads. It’s just not fun. It’s not fun. We’re not competing at a high level. Even though we’re winning, it’s not fun.
“I don’t see the joy in the game. I watch all these other teams around the league and guys are up on the bench, they’re jumping on the court, they’re doing all of this other stuff that looks like they’re enjoying their teammates’ success. They’re enjoying everything, and they’re playing together and they’re playing to win. And when I look at us I just see a bunch of individuals.”
Just a few days ago, the Celtics returned home having won 10 of their last 11 games, with two quite winnable home matchups looming against the teams from Los Angeles.
It seemed that the Celtics had found their stride and their rhythm, and as the others in the Eastern Conference’s top tier added reinforcements before the trade deadline, Boston stood pat with the belief that it already has enough talent to make the Finals right now.
But fortunes can change suddenly, and massive leads can be wiped away. First, the Lakers surged back from an 18-point deficit and defeated the Celtics on a Rajon Rondo buzzer beater Thursday. Then Saturday brought a new nadir.
In the game’s final moments, scattered boos poured down from the frustrated TD Garden fans. Then in his postgame press conference, coach Brad Stevens questioned his own coaching decisions and wondered whether it is time to alter his rotations to avoid miasmic quarters that have plagued this team.
“In a game when you’re ahead like that,” Stevens said, “you should win.”
To make matters even worse, All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving left the game with a sprained right knee in the second quarter and did not return.
He appeared to suffer the injury with just over four minutes left in the second quarter when he collided with Ivica Zubac while trying to get around his screen. Irving limped away from the play but stayed in the game.
He tried several times to stretch the leg out while he was on the court before he was taken out with 2:28 left and accompanied to the locker room by a member of Boston’s training staff. Stevens said after the game that Irving’s knee had buckled, and that he would undergo further testing on Sunday to determine the extent of the injury.
As if this team needed any more evidence of Irving’s value, it led, 69-48, when he exited the game, and it was outscored by 33 points without him. But even without Irving, this kind of collapse at home against a team that might not even make the playoffs is reason for concern.
Boston’s season-high 74-point first half was followed up by a season-low 38-point second.
“We’re going to lose games, but we don’t have no attitude,” Morris said. “We don’t have no toughness, we ain’t having fun. It’s been a long season.”
The Clippers last week made a sweeping series of moves involving a total of 13 players, including a trade that sent star forward Tobias Harris to Philadelphia. It seemed that they were shifting their focus toward their future, and what they hope will be a bountiful summer in free agency.
Before Garrett Temple, Zubac, Landry Shamet and JaMychal Green made their Los Angeles debuts on Saturday, coach Doc Rivers said the team had not taught them anything beyond the most basic tenets of their offense. But Stevens was wary, because he had seen teams play loose and free in situations like this.
Then the Celtics’ blitzed to a 28-point lead during a near-perfect first half in which they made half their shots, 7 of 12 3-pointers and 19 of 23 free throws, all while committing just one turnover.
But Boston went just 4 for 22 in the third quarter and missed all eight of its 3-point attempts, and the Clippers charged back with a 44-19 run that helped them pull within 87-84. Boston shot just 18.2 percent in the third quarter.
“I think I need to look at myself first and figure out what I can do to help that not happen,” Stevens said of yet another sluggish middle quarter. “If that means we need to play different rotations, call different things, start differently in quarters than we are, whatever the case may be, there’s an answer out there and we just have to find it.”
After the Celtics pushed ahead, 100-94, Shamet — in his first game as a Clipper — drilled back-to-back 3-pointers to tie the score at 100 and lead the Garden crowd to belt out some boos. The Clippers made 7 of 9 3-pointers in the third quarter.
Shamet then gave Los Angeles a 106-102 lead on a 4-point play with 3:24 left. After Celtics forward Gordon Hayward hit a 3-pointer and a 11-footer to pull Boston within 109-107, Patrick Beverley hit a 3 that was followed by a steal and dunk by Montrezl Harrell that made it 114-107 with 1:35 left.
“We got out of our game plan,” Terry Rozier said, “and it was history from there.”