Gary Washburn | On basketball

To stop their slippage, the Celtics need to act upon — and not just talk about — improvement

Marcus Smart (36) tries to encourage a dejected Gordon Hayward after he missed an easy layup that would have pulled the Celtics within 3 with 35.1 seconds left.
Marcus Smart (36) tries to encourage a dejected Gordon Hayward after he missed an easy layup that would have pulled the Celtics within 3 with 35.1 seconds left.Mary Schwalm/Associated Press/FR158029 AP via AP

The Celtics can keep talking about improving, getting off to better starts, being more cohesive defensively and consistently matching their opponent’s intensity. Yet, such words are meaningless until they are put into action.

Again, following another loss to a sub.-500 team, the Celtics promised to be better, promised they would “look at the tape” and try to improve on their mistakes. But they are repeatedly getting beat because they have taken their early success for granted.

The Celtics have fallen to fourth in the Eastern Conference after their 123-119 loss to the Phoenix Suns, a game they trailed for the final 46 minutes 23 seconds despite a franchise-record 11 3-pointers from Marcus Smart and a furious rally in the final 2:13 that cut a 14-point deficit to 3, 114-111.


But it had to be even more infuriating for Celtics’ faithful the home team could turn into a squad that plays harassing defense, precise offense and takes every possession seriously when they are nearly buried.

Fans began streaming out of TD Garden after Ricky Rubio’s jumper extended Phoenix’s lead to 114-100. The Celtics then scored the next 11 points in a 64-second span to at least scare the Suns.

But it was merely a scare. The Celtics didn’t deserve to win and they didn’t. They aren’t good enough to play half-speed for 3½ quarters and win. And it’s befuddling they would even think that way.

And, of course, after the game, the rhetoric was, “We got to be better” and “We need to fix our defense.”

The reality is the Celtics, especially when missing two starters as they did Saturday night with Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown, aren’t good enough to take any opponent for granted even on home court. They had a firm hold on the No. 2 seed two weeks ago and are now watching Toronto, Indiana, Philadelphia and Miami righting themselves and playing well.


This slippage is going to be costly. And coming to town Monday are the Los Angeles Lakers, fresh off an impressive win at Houston, followed by improving Memphis and then a road trip to Orlando, New Orleans and Miami.

If the Celtics are to snap this slump, they are going to have to earn it.

“We just have to get a little bit better,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “This will be a good stretch when we look back on it, because it will force improvement, it will force urgency on every detail, it will force [you] to do your job for 48 minutes. So these are never fun to go through. It [stinks], but this is usually what you look back on and say this is the springboard for you.

“I’m not surprised by the result. These guys [Suns] are talented and good.”

All the kudos went to the Suns, but it was the same kind of deferential praise the Celtics had for the Spurs, Wizards, Sixers, Pistons and Bucks. Only so much credit can be given to the opponent for playing a better game before you have to examine why this keeps happening.

On a night when they desperately needed standout nights from Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward, both were average at best. Tatum appeared daunted by his matchup with Devin Booker and finished with 26 points on 20 shots with four turnovers.


Gordon Hayward again struggled early, then warmed up and then missed a wide-open layup that would have brought the Celtics to within 3 with 35.1 seconds left. For Hayward, it was a play that typified his struggles in Boston. He sprang open on a back pick and had the ball at the rim with no defender in sight.

He said he got caught deciding whether to dunk it or lay it in and did neither. He flipped the ball too hard.

After the game, Hayward sat his locker, uniform still on while his teammates were already showering or dressed. He sat slumped in his chair, realizing another slow start aided the Celtics’ double-digit first-half deficit and his missed layup extinguished the last rally.

“I just missed it,” he said of his botched layup. “I just missed it. I should have just went up and dunked it, that was the mistake, not dunking it. I certainly was caught halfway thinking about it. Should have just went up and dunked it.

“In the moment, it’s hard to let that one go. We needed that bucket, for sure.”

As much as Hayward doesn’t want to admit missing that layup was a mental mistake, he admitted he was thinking about it in the middle of the play. For most players, those easy buckets come automatic, it’s effortless. Hayward thought about the repercussions of missing and how he was going to make the basket, instead of just scoring.

Not that the layup would have won the Celtics the game, but it’s an example of some of the obstacles Hayward still may be dealing with even more than two years removed from his injury.


Unless there’s a move before the Feb. 6 trade deadline or in the buyout market, this is who the Celtics are. They’ll obviously be better with Brown and Walker back, but the road back to previous form, being the No. 2 seed and a Top 5 NBA team, is going to be arduous.

“We have to come out with more sense of urgency,” Tatum said. “We come out a little too relaxed and they swing first. Now they’ve got us on our heels and we’re fighting back, which we’re capable of, but it makes it tough on us.”

Now that the Celtics know the problem, it’s time for some solutions — and quickly — because the rest of the NBA has no sympathy. Boston will continue to lose this way until these issues are rectified.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.