PHILADELPHIA — The fact Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he was encouraged after an 11-point loss to a team without its best player says enough about the current state of the Celtics.
They have taken a step back, eerily, when no one was paying attention and have been exposed, at least for now, as a team with many flaws, lacking the ability to fully concentrate in games, prone to mental lapses, squandering big leads and making merely good players look like superstars.
The result Thursday was a 109-98 loss, the Celtics’ third to the Philadelphia 76ers in three months, and first without All-Star center Joel Embiid, which was supposed to serve as a break for the Celtics.
Instead, similar to the Celtics falling to the Washington Wizards without Bradley Beal, they allowed Embiid’s complements to dominate. Josh Richardson scored 29 points, 14 above his season average, and attempted more free throws than the entire Celtics’ team.
Ben Simmons, with his limited offensive game, didn’t have to shoot from outside of 3 feet because the Celtics allowed him to score at will in the paint. Al Horford, still trying to find his offensive rhythm after 39 games, looked like vintage Boston Al with 17 points.
The Celtics didn’t make opposing teams work during their three-game losing streak. What’s more, they have become more timid as their offensive success has waned.
Jaylen Brown, in a 14-for-48 slump, pushed the ball down the floor with Philadelphia reserve Furkan Korkmaz the only player between him and the rim. Brown, struggling mightily to score at the rim of late, opted to toss the ball to the sideline to Semi Ojeleye, who missed a 3-pointer with the Celtics down 1 point midway through the fourth quarter.
Also in the fourth, Gordon Hayward drove the baseline, encountered a defender and instead of his patented pull-up jumper, he passed it out also. The trio of Hayward, Brown, and Jayson Tatum were 10-for-36 shooting and combined for 4 points in the pivotal fourth quarter.
Perhaps it’s the midseason blues or fatigue or pressure but the Celtics’ high-scoring trio isn’t doing its part of late. Kemba Walker, a few days removed from an illness, scored 26 points and played the second half with a sprained left thumb. Marcus Smart, who missed eight games with an eye infection, was sparkling with 24 points. But they got no help. Brown didn’t score in 16 second-half minutes. It took 19 minutes for Hayward to score 4 points.
Richardson outscored the trio by himself in the second half.
“They were just too comfortable,” Brown said. “For whatever reason, guys are just a little bit too comfortable playing against us. We’ve just got to watch the film, get back in the lab. All is not lost. I think we came out and played some really good basketball. Philly, for whatever reason, still won the game but I think that’s OK. We’ll come out and play better for the next game.”
This game can be viewed as “encouraging” considering the Celtics’ putrid efforts in the past two losses to Washington and San Antonio. But they still lost a winnable game to a team without the NBA’s best center. The 76ers still scored nearly half their points in the paint. They still allowed Korkmaz, a 44 percent 3-point shooter, to get open beyond the arc and he hit three critical 3-pointers.
The Celtics were better but the slippage was still prevalent. And it’s going to take the team’s stars — Tatum, Brown, and Hayward — to resuscitate themselves from these slumps and get untracked quickly. Losing streaks in the East will drop a team from second to sixth quickly.
“We just haven’t played hard,” Smart said. “They got easy transition baskets on us because of our mistakes. We’ve just got to turn it around. Like I told everybody, it’s part of the game. We’re not going to play perfect. We’re not going to be perfect. We’ve got a lot of basketball left. We’ve still got to figure it out.”
What burned the Celtics Thursday was a poor ending to the first half after they had soared to a 51-36 lead. They yielded a 12-0 run, going away from their system when they felt Philadelphia would relent and then went scoreless for nearly four minutes.
The Celtics have to limit these stretches. Instead of trying to attack the paint and get to the free throw line, they settled for 3-pointers or contested jumpers. Tatum attempted six free throws. The remaining four Boston starters combined for one.
“They outplayed us in the second half,” Walker said. “They clearly wanted it more. We didn’t maintain our play until things started going against us. We have to learn to close games out better and be consistent. We just have to be better. We’re going to continue to improve and to learn and grow with each other.”
Obviously the Celtics are one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference but they have shown their warts lately against a softer schedule, which is disappointing. Celtics like Brown and Hayward have to walk that fine line of working their way out of slumps with their customary shots and also being more selective when those shots aren’t going in as often.
They were hesitant against Philadelphia and that’s a discouraging sign. The Celtics are a talented club when playing cohesively but it can get ugly when they struggle to score and get defensive stops. They did neither well against Philadelphia and they are officially in a slump.