TORONTO — Maybe it’s telling about the state of the Boston Celtics and their current frustrations that, on the heels of another embarrassing loss, this time falling behind by as much as 31 while getting streamrolled by the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night, Marcus Smart was asked about an emotional exchange with Jaylen Brown during a disastrous second quarter and you could almost believe him when he feigned ignorance.
“Second quarter?” asked Smart. "To be honest I forgot about the play."
Smart was almost certainly playing coy to defuse the situation. Brown committed a charge instead of passing to a wide open Smart and both Smart and Marcus Morris barked at Brown for the poor decision. Smart continued to vent throughout a timeout that followed.
Right now, that sort of moment just sorta blends into the scenery with these Celtics.
Coming off a double-digit loss to the lowly Bulls on Saturday, the story line heading into Tuesday’s visit to Toronto was how, in a season of inconsistencies, the one certainty with Boston was how they get up for big games against top competition.
Didn’t happen. The Celtics played hard for one quarter then the wheels came off. And fast. The Raptors went on a couple of monster runs and outscored Boston by 23 points in the second quarter, helping the hosts coast to a 118-95 triumph at Scotiabank Arena (more like Scotia-spank arena, amirite?)
And the score really wasn’t even as close as it might seem.
☘️RAPTORS 118, CELTICS 95
Maybe the most damning thing you can say about these 2018-19 Celtics is that they are mentally weak. When other teams embark on runs, Boston offers little resistance and instead allows them to snowball until the game is out of reach.
And that’s what stuck in Smart’s craw, maybe more than the Brown sequence. Even more frustrating: Trying to figure out why it keeps happening.
"Not being together. And that’s it. We’re just not together. Plain and simple. That’s it,” said Smart. “Because, if we were together that wouldn’t happen. We’re all talking and linking up but, like I said, it’s something we’re going through and it’s something we’re going to have to continue to work at and figure it out.
"I’m really sure that we will. I just don’t know when. But I’m sure we’re going to figure it out. Just right now it’s going slower than we expected.”
Talk about an understatement. The calendar flips to March later this week and the Celtics will have 62 games under their belts by that point. The season has been a stomach-churning set of peaks and valleys, the dips and climbs so sudden that a Shamrock roller coaster wouldn’t be put into service at any amusement park in America because of the threat of nausea.
Before Tuesday’s game, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was asked if he knew the identity of his team. His words were telling. Stevens noted how he knows “what we’ve been” and “who we can be.” Notice he tiptoed around what the Celtics are now.
These Celtics fold like a deck of cards when they adversity hits lately. Their defense, tied for second in the NBA entering the month, has nosedived over the past 10 games. These Celtics don’t look anything like the lovable overachievers of past seasons.
Worse yet, they don’t look like they care to change it when things go bad.
“We’re just not together,” said Smart. "Last couple years, we were together. Whenever things hit, we’d become stronger. We’re not there yet.”
Smart suggested the Celtics will figure it out. Teammates Al Horford and Morris did the same. When it was his turn in front of the cameras, Kyrie Irving was asked about Smart’s assertion that the team isn’t playing together and whether that was a fair assessment.
“That’s Marcus’ opinion,” said Irving. “I respect it.”
A follow-up wondered if Irving shared that opinion. After a few beats of silence, a Celtics public relations staffer ended the press conference by shouting, “Thank you, Kyrie.”
Irving, who was sitting with Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge when the locker room opened to reporters, didn’t seem in a chatty mood. After a couple of longer answers to questions from TNT’s Jason Terry, part of the network’s Players Only broadcast, Irving answered five questions from the non-Players Only media with 19 total words.
Told that Stevens had said the Celtics were taking too many shortcuts and asked how the team could fix that issue, Irving responded, "I don't know. It's up to Brad.”
Much will be made of Irving’s quiet session and his private confab with Ainge, though it should be noted that Ainge has been on this entire trip and brief postgame conversations with players are not terribly uncommon at home or on the road.
Irving already made a “just wait until the playoffs” declaration after the loss in Chicago. He’s seemingly learned that any critical comments only tend to pour gasoline on Boston’s issues. Still, we scrutinize his brevity, though he might just be trying to prevent any of Boston’s troubles from snowballing any more than they already have.
Sorta like how Smart deftly sidestepped the Brown questions.
But maybe Irving's most telling response came when asked why Boston is unable to weather the storm when opponents make runs.
"I don't know,” said Irving, starting the pithy portion of his session. Asked about what he’d like to see the team change Wednesday when the Trail Blazers visit TD Garden, he added, "Just remaining tough.”
It’s gotten to the point in the Celtics’ season where the postgame press conferences are more entertaining than the games themselves. And yet the team remains unwavering in the belief that they will get things on track by the postseason.
"We’ve been up and down, up and down, up and down. The best thing about it is we still got a lot of games to correct it,” said Morris. "Still got a lot of time to put it together. Once we start going, man, we’re going to be having the same conversation about why we playing so well.”
Added Smart: “Everybody here’s professional, everybody here plays basketball, and everybody is really talented on this team. And I know the potential that we all have. So it’s just a matter of time.”
One thing is clear, though: More than attitude has to change. The Celtics have been great at the start of games, even during this rough patch, but things tend to go sideways in a hurry. Stevens changed up his substitution pattern a bit but might need to consider larger tweaks to ensure the proper balance of talent in reserve units. If the players on the court can’t stop these runs, Stevens has to do whatever he can to prevent them (whether that’s rotation tweaks or timeout usage).
But Stevens is acutely aware of his team’s current indifference.
"The reality is that we're taking a lot of shortcuts and not being as solid as we have been in the past in the last two games,” said Stevens. "I thought we were really good against Milwaukee. So it's not like we don't know what we need to do but, for whatever reason, we've taken too many shortcuts. You can't do that against any team. Certainly tonight, [Toronto] exposed us.”
Pressed on his team's three-game losing streak since the All-Star break, Stevens added, "We have to be more connected as a team. It's been a theme for a while.”
It’s been a theme park for an even longer period of time. The Celtics desperately need to get off this ride. They desperately need to harness all the energy that’s being expended venting about what’s going wrong and actually put in the effort to change things on the court.
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