This Celtics season has been filled with so many puzzling or surprisingly lopsided losses, so many moments of hope that were immediately followed by dips, that it has become impossible to guess how the team might react to its missteps.
On Sunday night, the Celtics were embarrassed on their home court by LaMarcus Aldridge’s 48-point performance that gave the Spurs a 115-96 win. It was Boston’s fourth loss in a row, tied for its longest streak of this season.
And while coach Brad Stevens said there were clear frustrations, he added: “We don’t need to ride the emotional roller-coaster.”
The locker room, which generally opens about 15 minutes after games, remained closed for more than 35 minutes after Sunday’s game. Marcus Smart said later that the players were taking part in an extended film study session. And when the room opened, the mood there was somewhat surprisingly upbeat.
This team generally follows Kyrie Irving’s lead, both via his play and his emotional state. After this loss, Irving acknowledged that the energy level against San Antonio was not as high as it should have been. But he also made it clear that he remains confident in this team’s capabilities when the games matter most.
“There’s light at the end of all this,” Irving said. “That’s probably where my patience will always lie, is knowing that something’s beyond this. This challenge is happening for a reason, and I’ve got to believe in that . . . It’s been hard, but it’s a challenge worth fighting for, because the end result is standing on that stage.”
Smart saw little reason for alarm, either. He said that the team was eager to collect some wins, but added that the best move now is to take a deep breath and refocus.
“We’re still fooling with it, but I see great progress, and I’m excited,” Smart said. “I’m ecstatic, and I’m happy with what we’re doing.”
Stevens, meanwhile, admitted that the team’s recent defensive struggles are very real. Boston once had the top-ranked unit in the NBA, but over the last 11 games it has ranked just 24th, allowing 113.8 points per 100 possessions. Stevens said the Celtics have not shown any hints of the defense they punished opponents with at the start of the year.
They also started this year with a lineup that included Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown. Both players were later removed in favor of Marcus Morris and Smart, and that was a boon to the offense. But that was also when Hayward was still finding his way after missing an entire year with an ankle injury and Brown was mired in a deep slump. Both players have been better recently.
Stevens said he is constantly thinking about alterations.
“But I don’t know if it’s the original starting lineup,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s better rotations. I think you’re always thinking about that . . .The one thing as we move forward we are going to need, based on our matchup, to settle on the best things for each series. But I don’t know that that will be our starting lineup that we’ve been starting.”
On Sunday, the defense was consistently picked apart by Aldridge, who pummeled Boston with an array of mid-range jumpers on his way to 48 points on 20-of-31 shooting. Irving was held to just 11 points on 5-for-17 shooting. Boston made just 7 of 35 3-pointers overall.
With eight games left in the regular season, the fifth-place Celtics now trail the fourth-place Pacers by two games. The two teams are almost certain to meet in the first round of the playoffs, so the only real jostling will involve securing home-court advantage.
Boston and Indiana will still meet twice more, so the Celtics will have a good chance to move past Indiana despite having little time to do it. But even if they have one less home game in a seven-game series against the Pacers, it would hardly be an end-all.
One challenge for Stevens over these next few weeks will be finding a way to develop a rhythm while also continuing to find opportunities for players to rest and get healthy. Al Horford missed Sunday’s game with a sore knee and Jayson Tatum sat out with a bruised back.
Stevens will look for opportunities for Irving to rest, and Tuesday’s game against the Cavaliers would appear to offer a good chance for Irivng to do that on the same day the Celtics grab a win, and then perhaps they will rev things up again.
“I think we’re to the point now where, rightfully so, we’ll be doubted,” Stevens said. “Rightfully so. We’ve earned that. So it’s time to buckle up and respond to this tough run.”
Aldridge’s 19-point first quarter helped stake San Antonio to a 54-47 halftime lead. And the third quarter did not start much better for Boston, as it missed its first six shots. Aldridge continued to feast, even finding openings for teammates when the Celtics tried sending double teams his way.
The Celtics finally got Aldridge to step outside his comfort zone and take a 3-pointer, and then they fouled him on it. Back-to-back fadeaway jumpers by DeMar DeRozan helped the Spurs stretch their lead 77-62. Boston tried to claw back with 3-pointers, but that was not a very reliable option on this night, as one attempt clanged off the rim after the other.
More scenes from the game
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@adamhimmelsbach.