Healthy Celtics searching for answers to what ails their team

Healthy Celtics searching for answers to what ails their team

PHILADELPHIA — While many of his team’s fans dusted off the panic buttons that have been in storage since May, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, president of the “never too high, never too low” society, struck a notably optimistic tone after his team dropped its third straight game in Philadelphia on Thursday night.

“The league is hard. You can feel pretty good about yourself and, one week later, and not so hot,” said Stevens. “[The Sixers] just went through it over here last week.

“Inevitably, there’s another game and, if we play like we did tonight, clean some things up and play with a little bit more pop, I like what we’re becoming.”

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There is an obvious danger in overreacting to small samples. And, yet, if we’re going to sit around debating whether the Celtics deserve three All-Stars when they are overachieving darlings at the start of the 2019-20 season, it’s only fair to point out the rather large bump in the road they’ve now hit.

Here are the sobering facts: The Celtics have lost three games in a row for the first time this season. They’re 0-3 against a Sixers team that they might have to go through in the playoffs. After feasting on inferior competition early in the year, the Celtics dropped two games against sub-.500 teams earlier this week — looking lackluster in each —  and, after Thursday’s loss, they are an uninspiring 7-7 against teams above. 500.

Yes, there’s plenty to be optimistic about considering the Celtics own both a top-10 offense (7th, 110.9 offensive rating) and defense (4th, 104.7). They’ve slipped slightly to the fourth-best net rating in the NBA (plus-6.2) but remain on a 55-win pace.

There are worse spots to be in.

What’s maybe most baffling, though, is that the Celtics entered Thursday’s showdown with the Sixers about as healthy as they’ve been all season. Kemba Walker sprained his left thumb but it hardly hindered him while scoring a team-high 26 points. Philadelphia should have been ripe to pounce on after learning that All-NBA big man Joel Embiid is sidelined indefinitely with his thumb injury.

But on this night it was Boston’s trio of wings that struggled. And struggled mightily. Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown could only muster up 10-of-36 shooting  (27.8 percent) and 29 total points. Tatum missed nine of his 13 shots and committed four turnovers; Brown missed 10 of his 12 shots and coughed the ball up three times. Hayward was 4-of-11 for 8 points and was minus-19 in 36 minutes of floor time.

The Celtics have been solid but not spectacular with their trio of wings playing together. In 273 minutes of floor time over 16 games, that group has a net rating of plus-4.8, but that includes an underwhelming defensive rating of 108.9. Boston is 9-7 in those games.

This is not to suggest that Boston’s wing depth is conspiring against itself. But it’s something to keep an eye on. It’s fair to wonder if Stevens is still searching for the right combinations, which maybe should be expected considering the injuries that have prevented this team from getting a look at steady rotations.

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Some of the Celtics’ best basketball has come with that trio of wings on the court, particularly on the offensive end. And yet that trio also has a first-half net rating of minus-5.4 in 133 minutes, indicative of Boston’s slow starts, though they’ve balanced that with a net rating of plus-14.4 in the second halves.

That wasn’t the case on Thursday. In eight second-half minutes together, the trio of wings were a minus-15 in their floor time together. Boston mustered just 18 fourth-quarter points and, after leading by as much as 15, watched the Sixers race away for an 11-point win.

It left most in Boston’s locker room scratching their heads.

“We finally got guys back healthy. Guys have been out. Guys are trying to catch their rhythm,” said Marcus Smart, who scored a season-high 24 points Thursday. "It’s tough, because you got guys who are already in their rhythm and you got guys trying to come back and get in to the rhythm. It’s going to take a while for us. But it’s nothing to hold our heads down about.

"For us, we got to let the distractions be distractions. We can’t really pay attention to it. We got everybody talking, saying this and that, we have to focus on ourselves. That’s the only way that we’re going to turn this thing around. If you start focusing on the things you can’t control, they just start spiraling out of control for us. So, like I said, hopefully we can get it figured out sooner than later.”

Even as Stevens took an optimistic tone, players seemed searching for answers to this little losing streak.

"I think we played with more intensity than we have played. I think we still need to take it up another notch,” said Brown. "I think we missed some open shots for whatever reason. They just didn’t find the basket. But I think we played some good basketball. I think shots just didn’t go in. You can credit it to Philly. You can credit it to whoever. I think we played some good basketball. I think that we’ve just got to continue to work. We don’t need to hang our heads for any reason, and respond for the next game.”

Brown admitted he’s gotta break out of his own funk while noting, "I’ve got to get back to doing what I do best.” Every player on Boston’s roster has had encouraging stretches this year — enough that Brown and Tatum muscled their way into All-Star consideration — and yet the wings haven’t been able to harness it together consistently enough. Especially not against the Sixers, who played with a sense of urgency even with a built-in excuse for a letdown while playing without Embiid.

Old friend Al Horford suggested Thursday might simply have meant more to the 76ers.

“You look at their team, they’re having a great year. They’re second in the East, they’re playing well,” said Horford. "I look at tonight just as more of, for us, it was a big game, it almost felt like a must-win. We’ve laid some eggs recently the past few weeks here, so we needed to get this win here and it feels good to beat a good team.”

Alas, the Celtics had laid a couple eggs entering Thursday’s tilt. They needed a win pretty badly, too, and even with the asterisk of no Embiid, this would have helped steady this plane as it navigates its first real turbulence of the season.

Brown was adamant this team will figure out what ails it.

"We still have the ability to respond next game. We will the next game, right?” proclaimed Brown. "We’ve got 82 games to play. We lost three. It’s fine. It happens. It’s a part of the year. We keep working, we continue to get better, we watch film and we move on from it. 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 come out and play better for the next game.”

Echoed Smart: "It was tough. Nobody wants to lose. And everybody is trying to figure it out, but we finally got off to a great start and gave ourselves a chance from the start. That was big for us so, yeah, we're down but we're still positive because, one, there's a lot of basketball to be played and, two, like I said, guys are trying to find a rhythm back. It happens.

"We've just got to be ready to turn it around and keep playing. That's the only way. You've got to get our rhythm and play it out and keep going.”

Blakely: How concerning is this loss (and week)?

Hindsight 2020: Would more Jayson Tatum have pushed Celtics to NBA Finals in 2018?

Hindsight 2020: Would more Jayson Tatum have pushed Celtics to NBA Finals in 2018?

Jayson Tatum was in his basketball bag, giving LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers all they could handle. 

He was scoring in an efficient manner (24 points on 9-for-17 shooting), rebounding the ball (seven rebounds) and making big shots.

And he was doing this on one of the biggest stages of them all: Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals.

A 3-pointer by Tatum put the Celtics ahead 72-71 with six minutes to play, a shot that capped off a Tatum surge in which he had scored seven of Boston’s last nine points. 

And then … nothing. 

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He took only one shot after that and missed it, going scoreless for the rest of the game.

The Celtics that year were a team that leaned on whoever had the hot hand. 

But on this particular night, they needed help figuring out who that was in the closing minutes — and in hindsight, head coach Brad Stevens should have stepped in and done more to implore his team to get the ball to Tatum in a better position to score. 

However Stevens stuck to what had worked so well for so long with this group: letting this young band of ballers figure out on their own who to lean on when it mattered most, as contributions seemed to come from a new player on a nightly basis.

But on this stage with all that was at stake, they absolutely needed Stevens to implore them to go to Tatum … a lot. 

And now, two years later, the domino effect of that game’s outcome is still felt. 

Brad Stevens has been at the helm for seven years here in Boston and ranks among the franchise’s winningest coaches ever. 

But in that Game 7 in 2018, the Celtics were less than six minutes away from getting to the NBA Finals, which is as close as this franchise has come to winning a title during Stevens' reign. 

When you look at the overall body of work since Stevens arrived in Boston in 2013, there are very few instances in which a decision or non-decision on his part stands out in a bad way. 

But this was one of those times. 

Yes, the Celtics were playing without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, who were both sidelined with injuries. 

And yes, there are undeniable benefits in having so many young players step their game up despite being without a pair of All-Stars in Irving and Hayward. 

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But as we’ve seen here in Boston and throughout the NBA, getting to the NBA Finals is not guaranteed for any team regardless of how much promise they show going forward.

And to be as close as they were at that time, there’s no way to completely move on from that sting of missing out — other than to take that next step and actually reach the Finals. 

You can go through all the missed shots and free throws and blown assignments defensively and find factors that led to Boston coming up short in that game.

But none looms larger than the Celtics' inability to put Tatum in a better position to score the ball in the final minutes. 

While the pain from that loss has in many ways helped Boston’s young core grow, the gains for the Celtics and the Tatum-Brown tandem would have been even greater had that group as they were constructed advanced to the Finals. 

When it comes to players making plays when it counts, of course it’s ultimately on them to deliver. 

But efforts must be made to best position players to come through in the clutch, the one thing in hindsight the Celtics could have done a better job in what was — and still is — the toughest loss for this franchise in the Stevens era.

2020 NBA Mock Draft 4.0: Teams still on schedule for June

2020 NBA Mock Draft 4.0: Teams still on schedule for June

The NBA season may be at a standstill, but that won’t slow NBA teams down from preparing for the upcoming draft that’s currently slated for June 25. 

While this draft is short on star power like this year’s NBA rookie class, which includes Zion Williamson of New Orleans, Ja Morant in Memphis and New York’s R.J. Barrett, all of whom turned in strong first seasons in the NBA, there’s still plenty of talent to pick over in the coming weeks. 

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And the Celtics will get their shot — make that shots, plural — with three first-round picks this year. 

Here’s a look at the Celtics’ possible draft plans as well as those of the rest of the NBA in the latest NBC Sports Boston NBA Mock Draft. 

Click here for the gallery.