Blame the early 22-3 deficit, the Celtics allowing the Spurs to make 65 percent of their 2-point shots in the first half, and missing a litany of open looks for the loss to the Spurs at TD Garden Wednesday night.
Don’t blame official Evan Scott, entirely.
Of course, Scott’s missed call on what was an illegal and crunching screen on Kemba Walker and his hypersensitivity to Walker’s harsh criticism that led him to eject the Celtics guard for the first time in his career was a crucial stretch. The Spurs received five free throws in the deal — adding a technical foul on coach Brad Stevens and personal foul on Daniel Theis — and it sparked a 17-3 run.
The Celtics cost themselves in the ultimate 129-114 loss with an unexpected case of lethargy that has spread throughout the team. This was supposed to be one of the easier parts of the schedule. In a 21-game stretch, the Celtics played 16 games against teams with losing records. And now, five games into the stretch, they are 3-2 with a pair of rather bad losses and two wins accomplished simply on talent.
They aren’t playing hard all the time,perhaps the worst accusation you can make against a team. Players aren’t always going to play well but they’re always supposed to play hard. Opposing teams also feature highly paid professionals who were one-and-dones, lottery picks, and players on max deals.
Yet the Celtics have seemed to enter the past few games as if they expected to win on reputation, that the other team was just going to lay down because they lose more than they win. On Monday, Boston was continuously burned by Washington backup point guard Ish Smith, who dribbled around the perimeter against a Three Stooges-like Celtics defense and swished jumpers.
On Wednesday, the Celtics were extinguished by an avalanche of 2-pointers, as the Spurs attacked the paint and scored at will, so much so that Stevens opted for fan favorite and NBA rookie Tacko Fall in the second period. Stevens was just trying to interject some energy into TD Garden and his team.
“We’re responsible for getting beat and the Spurs are responsible for beating us,” Stevens said. “We didn’t play hard enough. San Antonio played hard. We didn’t. San Antonio played great. We hoped a few shots went in to stay afloat, but we didn’t play hard enough.”
How does an NBA team not play hard enough over the course of a few games? It could be fatigue, overconfidence, arrogance, or apathy. It could be that opposing teams have scouted the Celtics well and know they ease into games.
The Celtics have not been a good first-half team this season. They are markedly better offensively and defensively after halftime, when they have taken a couple of punches to the mouth, then realize they are being challenged. They tried rallying Wednesday, slicing a 23-point deficit to 7 before the Walker technicals.
And that change in momentum allowed the Spurs to make the game-deciding run. But the Spurs were playing well before the Walker incident. A Spurs team that entered the game 4-11 on the road this season looked completely comfortable at the Garden. And what’s disappointing is the Celtics said they learned their lesson after Monday’s loss at Washington, which was playing without All-Star Bradley Beal.
It’s not just a matter of running into struggling teams who are on a hot streak. You know what the Wizards did Wednesday? Lost by 34 at Orlando. The Chicago Bulls have dropped two games since nearly rallying to beat the Celtics on Saturday.
The Hawks, who came into the Garden last Friday and lost, 112-109, have dropped two of three since then.
This isn’t an other team problem, this is a Celtics’ problem. They are totally responsible for their recent struggles. They somehow need to find their edge again, turn back into predators, and regain their swagger. Every team goes through slumps, but the issue here is the Celtics are getting buried early — like 22-3 — and then are forced to play near-perfect basketball to prevail.
And when they finally found their rhythm Wednesday, Walker got tossed and then they pressed their way into mistakes. The Spurs regained control.
“The last two games we didn’t play hard enough; we got outplayed in terms of effort,” forward Jayson Tatum said. “I don’t want to make any excuses. We just simply have to play harder, play tougher.
“Yeah, it’s tough because I think that’s what we hang our hat on is competing, playing hard as a group. We didn’t do that these last two games.”
The Celtics will quickly get another chance to atone for these mental lapses as they face the 76ers in Philadelphia on Thursday, one of four teams with winning records during this 21-game stretch. Philadelphia likely will be without All-Star Joel Embiid because of a dislocated finger.
That should offer Boston an advantage, but the Celtics have to treat this game as if a playoff seeding is on the line. It’s an archrival, on the road, and the 76ers would like nothing more than to embarrass Boston for several reasons.
The Celtics’ pride will be at stake Thursday. Either they punch first, snap out of this malaise, or it becomes more of a problem. The Celtics have faced injury issues this season but this is the first stretch in which they have played below their standards, where they look sluggish and frankly, distracted.
Why? The players don’t even have an explanation.But it needs to change. The Celtics need to get back to being themselves quickly.