Funny — well, not exactly funny — but it’s ludicrous how quickly a team’s fortunes can change in just a few minutes in the NBA.
The Celtics were coasting to an easy win Tuesday night at TD Garden against a Brooklyn Nets team that looked completely lethargic through the first three quarters. Suddenly, players started going down with injuries, Caris LeVert turned into Michael Jordan, and the remaining Celtics flipped a sure victory into one of the more disheartening defeats — 129-120 — of the Brad Stevens era.
And while Stevens pointed the finger at his players because of their lackadaisical play, he deserves a hefty part of the responsibility for this loss.
The Nets scored a combined 62 points in the fourth quarter and overtime (including 51 in the fourth quarter), and LeVert accounted for 37 of those. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot scored 11 and three players combined for 14. So when Stevens was asked why he didn’t just double-team LeVert in the fourth quarter, the coach offered a curious reason.
“We tried to,” Stevens said of the defensive options. “On a couple of different plays and a couple of times he found other guys. A couple of times, he just made the right play. Those were tough matchups for us, no matter what.
“Again, the one thing you have to be careful of when you’re up like that, you don’t want to give up wide-open threes to other guys and wide-open dunks. You should still be able to finish that game and guard as well as you can. We just really didn’t play well at the end.”
There’s no excuse for allowing LeVert to score 51 points, 14 above his career high. And the Nets made no secret that he was going to do all the scoring down the stretch. In the fourth quarter and overtime, two non-LeVert Nets hit 3-pointers, and one was a pull-up 28-footer by point guard Chris Chiozza when the Celtics’ defense wasn’t even set.
So the Nets made one 3-pointer off a LeVert assist — by Luwawu-Cabarrot with 5:08 left in regulation. So the “other guys can beat us argument” doesn’t fly in this situation.
The fact is the Celtics lost this game because of their arrogance. They didn’t want to trap or double LeVert because they didn’t think he could beat them. And then Marcus Smart allowed his emotions to get involved and started making hero defensive plays, such as the horrible foul on LeVert with two-10ths of a second left as he was rising for a desperation 3-point shot with the Celtics leading by 3.
Smart was furious because he thought he fouled LeVert before the release, but when a player already has 23 points in a quarter, officials are going to give him the benefit of the doubt. So LeVert was awarded three free throws.
Stevens said he didn’t instruct Smart to foul LeVert. They would have rather allowed him to hit a contested three against centers Daniel Theis and Robert Williams, but Smart thought he was shrewd enough to foul LeVert and force two free throws.
After the game, Smart needed to be restrained from official John Goble and then was flanked by team security as he talked with NBA officials about the issues while still in his uniform.
So, with Smart facing a possible suspension, Jaylen Brown nursing a sore right hamstring (an injury that hampered him in the 2018 playoffs), Gordon Hayward out with a sore knee, Jayson Tatum still sick, and Kemba Walker not playing back-to-back games because of a balky knee, the Celtics may be fielding a G League-type team Wednesday in Cleveland and health is going to be an issue for the remainder of the season.
But it would have felt a whole lot better for the Celtics had they not wasted a 13-point lead with 4:14 left in regulation against a lineup that included two-way contract Chiozza, Rodions Kurucs, and Luwawu-Cabarrot, who was waived by Cleveland in October.
What’s more, Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson played one starter — LeVert — in the fourth quarter and overtime, save 14 seconds by Taurean Prince.
“That was ridiculous,” Stevens said. “I should have subbed a couple of guys out that normally play and I just kept them in. We had great intensity most of the game and just let our foot off the gas. We got four stops in the fourth quarter. They scored 51 points. We made a lot of plays late that were just not winning plays.
“I have no idea who’s going to Cleveland. I think most of the coaches are going, couple players. I just want eight guys, nine guys — whoever’s going to play hard, let’s go. Like, that was ridiculous.”
Stevens is right, but he has to take major responsibility for that. If some of his players are relaxing on defense, he needed to pull them for players who were willing to defend. If LeVert keeps scoring, use multiple defenders to stop him.
LeVert was the only established NBA player on the floor who could have beaten the Celtics in that stretch, and he did. And that’s on Stevens. It wasn’t like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were out there. They aren’t coming back until next season.
The Celtics got humiliated Tuesday because of their arrogance. They, like most of the sold-out TD Garden, didn’t think the Nets had the talent or fortitude to beat the home team. This has been one of Stevens’s weaknesses in his tenure in Boston, waiting too long, or this time not at all, to make adjustments.
LeVert scored all 11 of Brooklyn’s points in overtime. So it was apparent Stevens and his coaching staff really never got the message that something needed to change. And they deserved to lose because of that.