TORONTO — As the media were allowed into the locker room Tuesday at Scotiabank Arena, Kyrie Irving, legs soaking in ice buckets, was sharing a whisper-quiet conversation with Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge.
Ainge was listening. Irving was calmly venting. And Irving sat at his locker for several minutes, joking with teammates Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris.
It’s reached a point in Boston where no one in the locker room, front office or coaching staff can figure out why the Celtics are so inconsistent and at some points just quit. Irving’s behavior didn’t seem one of acceptance for the situation, but it wasn’t one of crushing disappointment, either.
Maybe the Celtics have accepted who they are. A bewildering team that could maybe, if they are lucky and engaged, make a playoff run in six weeks and reach their preseason potential.
Their 118-95 loss to the Toronto Raptors was nothing short of embarrassing. And this team is turning more unlikable by the day, similar to that 2011 “Chicken and Beer” Sox team that melted in September and completely missed the playoffs.
The Celtics talked after the All-Star break about reenergizing and being geared for the stretch run. They lose a close game to Milwaukee, then turn in two absolute clunkers to Chicago and Toronto.
It was so bad (how bad was it?), Tuesday that Marcus Morris threw a pass off the chest of an unaware Robert Williams and Pascal Siakam picked up the ball and took it coast-to-coast for an uncontested dunk.
Brad Stevens said his team is taking “short cuts” on defense. When asked about that assessment, Morris responded with “next question,” as if maybe the players are sick of accepting the blame for what is becoming a lost season.
The Raptors stepped on the Celtics’ neck, humiliating their Atlantic Division rivals with a parade of 3-pointers and contributions from their entire roster. All of their players looked like All-Stars.
The Celtics had little fight after getting outscored, 36-13, in the second period. And once Toronto responded from a 7-2 mini run by the Celtics to begin the third quarter, Boston relented for good. The Celtics gave up, plain and simple. Toronto isn’t this good. The Raptors (without Kawhi Leonard) lost to Orlando at home on Sunday.
Credit the Raptors as much as they’d like, the Celtics know they are the problem and the most frustrating aspect is they can’t figure out why they are so lethargic or why they have no idea how they will perform from one night to the next.
So perhaps that exchange between Irving and his teammates was complacency or acknowledgement that this is who they are, and there’s no use trying to change it.
“I can’t really put my finger on it,” Morris said. “We just need to play harder. We got too much talent on this team to not be able to respond when we get down like that. We’ve still got a long season to go, it’s not the playoffs yet.”
Oh, so the Celtics want to take the road of their 2010 forefathers and click the switch during the playoffs. That team reached the NBA Finals as the fourth seed and lost in Game 7 to the Los Angeles Lakers. The only difference is that team had most of the core of the 2008 title team and a coach who knew how to handle those big personalities and motivate them for that run.
Not to say Stevens isn’t capable of that, but something is seriously wrong. The Celtics led by 2 points to begin the second quarter and trailed by as many as 25 in the same quarter.
Eight Raptors scored in the second quarter and the Celtics were essentially done after that. Just to show how fragile they are, the Celtics opened the second half with a 7-2 run with Al Horford at the 3-point line with a chance to slice the deficit to a workable 13. He missed.
Leonard responded with a contested 3-pointer for a 19-point lead (71-52) with 8:28 left in the third and it was garbage time. It’s rather pathetic to watch an NBA team slated to reach the Finals play more than 20 minutes of garbage time, but these are your 2018-19 Celtics.
“For whatever reason we’re not fighting, continuing to fight at that level like we’ve done in the past,” Horford said. “We started the third with good energy but it got away from us. I gotta give them credit. They were playing with much more energy than we were. Some of the things that we talked about, transition defense, getting back, unacceptable passes over the top, them getting dunks. It’s that sense of urgency that we’re lacking at times, those lapses.
“It’s been a season with a lot of expectations and we’ve struggled with everything. At times we’ve played really good. Other times we’ve struggled. It’s been up and down and I really believe as long as we can stick together, we can figure this out.”
There’s a deep level of frustration for Stevens, who has usually been able to pull his team out of such ruts with strategy changes or coaching acumen. Stevens can’t seem to get through to the most talented team he’s ever had, and it’s dispiriting.
“I thought we were outplayed in every which way,” he said. “I don’t want to take away from Toronto, but am I thrilled about how we played? No. We have to be a lot more connected as a team. It’s been a theme for a while.”
So the Celtics have two choices: Accept who they are and just play out the string, knowing their season could be over by the end of April or really soul search and solve this conundrum. So far, it seems like the Celtics are content to live out the former.