Celtics

Depleted Celtics battle Wizards to double OT, but fall just short

Depleted Celtics battle Wizards to double OT, but fall just short

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics are too good to play the moral victory game, but you can bet they will take plenty of positives from their 125-124 double overtime loss to the Washington Wizards. 

Jayson Tatum had a chance to win the game – in both overtimes actually – but his 3-pointer was off the mark with time expiring shortly afterwards.

At the end of the first overtime, Tatum was at the free throw line with 3.1 seconds to play and missed the free throw that would have likely won the game.

But the Celtics have no reason to hang their heads after this one, a game that truth be told should not have lasted as long as it did based on the state of both teams prior to tip-off.

Considering the quantity and quality of players Boston had sidelined with illness and injuries, it may have been the most impressive “Next Man Up” performance we’ve seen in the Brad Stevens’ era. 

Boston, playing without all but one starter – and that starter, rookie Jayson Tatum, was a game-time decision with a sore lower back injury – as well as key reserve Marcus Smart, seemed to just run out of steam in the second overtime.

Morris had a season-high 31 points for Boston (46-22), one of six double-figure scorers for Boston.  Bradley Beal led the Wizards with a game-high 34 points and nine assists.

Several Celtics played critical roles down the stretch that seldom play let alone in crunch time. 

Among them was Abdel Nader who made a timely 3-pointer in the fourth quarter coming out of a time-out wit 1.7 seconds left on the shot clock. He had 10 points off the bench for Boston.

Boston controlled the game for most of the first half, but a 10-0 run by Washington to close out the second quarter made it a single-digit game, and it remained that way for all of the third quarter. 

Boston’s control didn’t seem to be in question until the Celtics lost sight of Bradley Beal in the corner – big mistake – which he made them pay for by draining a 3-poniter which made it a 72-70 game.

But Aron Baynes converted a pair of free throws followed by a steal and breakaway dunk by Terry Rozier which pumped the Celtics lead up to 76-70.

However, Washington responded with seven straight points to take the lead 77-76 with 3:35 to play in the third quarter, leading to a Celtics time-out. 

The game stayed relatively close in the third quarter which ended with the Wizards ahead 81-80 going into the fourth quarter.

Boston could not have scripted a better start to the game.

The Celtics opened with a 9-2 run, leading to a Wizards time-out. 

Boston’s lead continued to grow, leading to another time-out at the 6:29 mark of the first with the Celtics ahead 19-6. 

Yup. 

Two time-outs for the Wizards in less than six minutes.

It was that kind of game for Washington in the first half which was surprising when you consider how injury-riddled the Boston Celtics were. 

But as we’ve seen all season, Boston seems to be at its best when the odds are stacked heavily against them. 

No Kyrie Irving; or Marcus Smart; or Al Horford; or Daniel Theis … you get the picture. 

Even with all those core players out with injuries and illnesses, Boston seemingly didn’t miss a beat in the first half.

And it wasn’t all that complicated what Boston was doing. 

Defend your man, rebound the ball and swing it offensively until you get a great shot regardless of whose hands the ball winds up in.

And this approach worked to perfection in the first half. 

But when it mattered most, Brad Stevens’ patched up lineup couldn’t make that one shot or get that one stop to get the win.

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Only thing the Celtics need to change right now is their attitude

Only thing the Celtics need to change right now is their attitude

Boston Celtics All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, typically loquacious in his responses, offered a notably gnomic retort when asked Sunday how Boston might find the consistency that the team so clearly lacked during an unsavory road trip.

"Two controllable things,” said Irving, “attitude and effort.”

There will be plenty of ink spilled the next few days trying to diagnose what ails these Celtics amid an uneven 7-6 start to the 2018-19 season. Some will suggest possible lineup changes, others will ponder whether a larger roster shakeup might eventually be needed further out. Ultimately, much of Boston’s struggles might be alleviated with three things.

Attitude. Effort. And a much more favorable schedule ahead.

To be certain, the only thing consistent about the Celtics early in the new seasons has been their inconsistency. Boston has bursts of offensive pulchritude that might make the Warriors blush (see: first half in Denver, second half in Phoenix) then endure maddening stretches of two-way ineptitude that defy all reason  (see: first half in Phoenix and Portland).

It’d almost be easier if Boston’s struggles could be pinned on one player and coach Brad Stevens could make a reactionary change. But as much as some want to lament Gordon Hayward’s dawdling reintegration or Jaylen Brown’s struggles to assert himself in a new role, the Celtics’ struggles run deeper than a single player.

Every rotation player on the roster has struggled in one way or another recently. Al Horford shot 18.8 percent from the 3-point arc on the 5-game road trip; Irving was spectacular offensively but had some maddening defensive lapses (including on VIctor Oladipo’s game-winner to start the trip in Indy); Jayson Tatum’s shot selection was widely panned before he finally started attacking the basket in Utah (and then he was rewarded when his 3-point shot got hot in Portland); and the entire B.W.A. seemed unable to sustain a high level of play on the rare occasions the starters were actually clicking.

The Celtics are undeniably in their own heads. They believed their own hype before the season and haven’t seemed to want to put in the sort of sustained effort necessary to actually be a great team.

Maybe that’s why Marcus Smart implored his teammates to quit making excuses after Sunday’s comeback effort in Portland fell short. The Celtics got themselves to the fringe of the NBA Finals last season by routinely outworking their opponents despite not always having the most talent on the floor.

With Irving and Hayward healthy again, the Celtics are undeniably stocked with talent but are now struggling to figure out how all the puzzle pieces work together. Until they do, they have to get back to simply outworking opponents.

"Energy, effort, those are the things that always have to be there,” said Horford.

That they haven’t been there is an indictment on the whole team, including the head coach. Brad Stevens tried to take some of the pressure off his players by absorbing blame for the team’s inconsistencies after the loss in Portland, even if it’s not his fault the Celtics have been impossibly poor shooting wide-open looks. Still, the team’s lulls have snowballed and Stevens has to be better at shaking his team from those doldrums, even if it means leaning on his whiteboard to break scoring droughts.

It’s maybe no coincidence that, on the night Boston stormed back in Phoenix, it was the second-half insertion of Smart to the first unit that helped spark that comeback. The Celtics are desperate right now for energy-givers. When Boston needed a jolt in Portland, it was Smart wrestling offensive rebounds away to generate much-needed second-chance opportunities.

It’s absolutely fair to wonder if the Celtics need some sort of rotation alteration, if only to shake things up a bit. But, even 13 games in, it would be reactionary to start really shuffling things up. Some will suggest the team needs to revert to last year’s starting lineup with Aron Baynes providing a big body up front. But despite all that ails this team, the Celtics still rank as the No. 1 defense in the league and sit eighth in defensive rebound rate. Baynes helps the effort quotient with his hard-nosed play but doesn’t necessarily cure the offensive struggles that the Celtics’ first unit has routinely experienced.

The Celtics quietly ramped Hayward’s minutes up on the final game of the road trip, playing him 31 minutes, including a rare crunch-time cameo. He’s clearly still finding his way as evidenced by his hesitation at times on both ends of the floor. Teams have targeted him defensively and he’s had rough stretches. The fear from this vantage point would be that, any move to put him on the second unit only adds another thing to his head as he tries to get over all the mental hurdles working his way back from the ankle injury. Stevens might be better off subbing Hayward early and giving him extended run with reserve groupings where he can handle the ball more, rather than shuffling him off the starting group just as his availability begins to extend.

Amid the frustrations about Boston’s play consider this: The Celtics still rank fourth overall in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, sitting behind only the Warriors, Bucks, and Raptors (and one spot ahead of the Portland team it lost to on Sunday).

The Celtics have played a daunting early season schedule, with an increased difficulty from the long road trip early in the calendar. BPI has Boston with the ninth toughest schedule in the league but only the Bucks have played a tougher slate among East teams (not that that makes it any easier to see Milwaukee three games up in the standings despite Boston’s head-to-head win).

Boston’s position might be slightly inflated by a defense that is absurdly outpacing the rest of the league. Boston ranks 17th in offensive BPI but gets a huge jolt from their defense.

But the computer model remains particularly bullish on Boston and even projected these early struggles. BPI’s expectation was a 2-3 road trip for Boston and the only game that didn’t play out to projection was in Indiana, a game that the Celtics should have won if not for Oladipo’s heroics. Incredibly, the Celtics are currently BPI favored in their next 45 (FORTY-FIVE!) games (that’ll change with a larger sample of games but it’s still jarring to see). Now, keep in mind there are games in that stretch that they are less than a point favorites, but Boston isn’t a full-fledged BPI underdog again until a visit to Milwaukee on Feb. 21.

No one expects the team to launch into some sort of absurd winning streak. And they might not beat Chicago if they display the sort of inconsistencies they’ve shown early in the season. But there’s potential to gain some steam here. There’s potential to rebuild some confidence.

If this team starts playing with attitude and effort, these games will more routinely tip in their favor.

And, if they don’t, then we can talk about bigger changes. Right now, this team simply needs an attitude adjustment and an effort injection  — and maybe a little bit of homecooking.

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Kyrie Irving after 1-4 road trip: 'We're not as good as we think we are'

Kyrie Irving after 1-4 road trip: 'We're not as good as we think we are'

Kyrie Irving said he will not panic over the Boston Celtics’ uneven start to the 2018-19 season but, echoing what coach Brad Stevens has said multiple times this year, the All-Star point guard acknowledged that the Celtics are not as good as they believe they are.


"We needed this [poor road trip]. We’re not as good as we think we are,” Irving said after the Celtics’ erased a 21-point deficit but couldn’t cap their comeback while falling to the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night. 

"That’s really what it comes down to. I said it at the beginning of the season: The excitement is just done. It’s real basketball now so it’s not just about the potential of the team or where we’ll be at the end of the season. It’s right now, and taking care of what presently is in front of us. 

"We have challenges, we have barriers to get over as a team [and] individually. I’m going to be the most patient out of everyone. I’m not going to get too frazzled, too high or too low or anything like that. It’s a long season. I just understand that, for us to be special, we just have to get through some challenges.”

The Celtics turned in another first-half dud in Portland, digging themselves a monster hole that required a furious second-half surge. Unlike in Phoenix, where Boston stole its only win of the trip in overtime against a basement-dweller, Boston could not get over the hump in Portland.

As Stevens tried to absorb some of the blame for Boston’s inconsistent play, Irving called on Boston players to come together to figure out what’s ailing them during a  7-6 start to the new season.

"It takes a collective effort,” said Irving. "Until we all get on the same page with that, we’re gonna have lulls. … We could blame anybody in this locker room for one thing or another. But I think, collectively, our responsibility is just to collectively be on the right page and understand that.”

Irving tried to put into words the frustration that Boston has obvious talent but hasn’t been able to maximize it yet.

"When we come out here and play, it’s not anything different than other teams playing at a higher effort level than we are. And it comes to getting punched in the mouth a few times and then we come out and clearly we outmatch teams at dang near every position,” said Irving. "We have a lot of good players. And when I say, ‘outmatch,' I mean in terms of the groups we have out there we pretty much have a mismatch every time out there down the floor. So it comes with discipline. It comes with understanding. It comes with experience of just being on a team like this.

"We can’t have empty possessions, so whoever is shooting the shot, if they feel like it’s a great shot, then we all have to feel comfortable with it. I think it just comes with, just some experience. Looking at this locker room, me being in my eighth year and being a ‘veteran’ as well as Al [Horford] and [Aron] Baynes. Right now I think it would be nice if we had someone that was a 15-year vet, a 14-year vet that could kind of help us race along the regular season and understand it’s a long marathon rather than just a full-on sprint, when you want to play, when you want to do what you want to do.”

Boston’s funk comes as East rivals Toronto (12-1) and Milwaukee (10-3) have exploded out of the gates. Over the weekend, Philadelphia traded for Jimmy Butler, infusing a veteran talent onto a young roster and announcing that the 76ers would not be content to wait another year to be a legitimate contender.

The Celtics, the presumed favorite to sit atop the East after LeBron James took his talents to Hollywood, will endure a long cross-country flight back to Boston on Monday while trying to wrap their heads around why they can’t put together 48 minutes of consistent basketball.

"It’s all about attitude and effort,” said Irving. "That’s all it is.”

Stevens sounded hesitant to make wholesale changes given how his team has played well in spurts this season. And yet it’s hard not to wonder if the team has to do something to shake it from the early season funk.

For now, Stevens tried to put the blame on himself.

"You find your flow by making the next right play and playing hard, that’s it. When you’re in the game, you have a job to do on that possession, you do it,” said Stevens. “Then, if you do it really well over and over again, you have a good team. We’re not there yet and so that, to me, is well-coached teams get there; we’re not a well-coached team right now, that’s pretty obvious.”

Celtics players said that not one single player — or coach -- deserved blame for this funk.

“Everybody plays a part, but there’s only so much Brad can do,” said Jayson Tatum, who matched his career high with 27 points in Portland. "We have to go out there, hit shots, follow the game plan, and stop guys from scoring. There’s only so much he can do from the sideline.”


Could this road trip actually help the team, as Irving suggested?

“It probably will help us, the reality check that we might not be as good as everybody said we are at this moment, so we gotta get back home,” said Tatum. "I know everybody wants to go back home, and we need to figure some things out.”

And, if the Celtics need a kick in the pants, they’ve got guys in the locker room who are willing to do that as well.

"Marcus Smart was telling us after the game that there’s no more excuses,” said Horford. "We need to be better.”

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