The Boston Celtics turned in some of their most encouraging basketball of the season on Monday night.
And then …
- Coughed up a 19-point lead
- Watched the Chicago Bulls open the fourth quarter on a 37-9 run
- Fell to 0-3 at TD Garden (where they were booed yet again) and 2-5 on the season
And just when it seemed like things couldn’t possibly get any worse, Marcus Smart -- fresh off a night with zero assists in 33 minutes, 10 seconds of floor time -- offered some potentially well-intentioned but less-than-ideally-delivered and definitely poorly-timed comments suggesting Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown don’t yearn to pass when defenses key on a predictable Boston offense in crunch time.
Whether coincidental or not, neither Tatum nor Brown addressed the media after Monday’s game.
We’re reminded of the scene in Christmas Vacation where Helen tells Clark she thinks it’s best if everyone went home before things get worse. To which Clarks retorts, "WORSE!? How could things get any worse? Take a look around here, Ellen. We're at the threshold of hell.”
Tatum missed seven of the eight shots he took in the final quarter. He compounded matters with a bad turnover with Boston clinging to a two-point lead and in desperate need of a momentum-stopping bucket. He was also late getting back on defense while protesting a no whistle on a drive with Boston down four with under four minutes to play. The Bulls raced the other way and generated free throws against a disadvantaged Boston defense.
The Celtics can fret their fourth-quarter offensive woes all they want. The bigger problem is a defense that offered little resistance as the Bulls connected on 13 of 16 shot attempts (81.3 percent).
Chicago made every 2-point shot it attempted in the final frame. Boston didn’t generate a single defensive rebound in the fourth quarter while Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan got most anywhere they wanted.
Smart’s comments were fairly tame and cliché at the start of his postgame press conference. The veteran point guard noted, "Sometimes I will tell people before you see the rainbow, it has to rain. We're going through the rain right now, so we gotta figure out how to get out of it. It's not going to be easy, it's not going to be pretty. Just gotta figure out a way.”
He veered a bit off course when the conversation swung to the team’s fourth-quarter offensive woes.
"There's only so much I can do without the ball in my hands. I'm just standing in the corner,” said Smart. "We’re running plays for our best players, every team knows that. They do a good job of shutting that down. We can't allow that. When they shut that down, we can't keep trying to go to those guys. We gotta avoid that and find another way to give them the ball in the spots where they need the ball.
"Like I said, for me, I can only do so much just standing there in the corner or when I give the ball away. I do everything I can on the other end to try to combat that. I try to talk, I try to make plays, get those guys the ball where they need it, where they want it.”
Brown, who willed Boston out of an early hole and into what should have been a comfy third-quarter lead, took only two shots in the fourth quarter, both with less than four minutes to play. Smart took only two shots in the final frame as well, making an early layup, but then front-rimming a 3-pointer off a Tatum kick-out once Chicago’s lead had already swelled to nine with 2:30 to go.
Smart could be simply trying to light a fire under the Jays. After all, first-year coach Ime Udoka already utilized a "criticize Jaylen" card last week. We’re left to see how all parties respond to the attention the pull-quotes are sure to draw.
The bigger problem here is that the Celtics can’t seem to see the forest from the trees. The offense surely didn’t help matters, but it was the team’s inability to dig in and get a stop when it mattered that really ensured another embarrassing loss. Defense was supposed to be the backbone of this team and Boston ranked 26th in defensive rating in the aftermath of Monday’s loss.
The Celtics swear they’re making progress. A three-game road trip looms, including a back-to-back in Florida. The Celtics have already watched minutes pile up for their starters and the trip closes with games against defense-dripping Miami and the Luka-led Mavericks.
Yet again with these Celtics, we’re left waiting to see how they respond to adversity. Yet again, it feels like this team is at a bit of a crossroads -- and far earlier than anyone could have expected.
Will Boston respond to the early season struggles and the brush fire that Smart’s comments could ignite? Or will they further splinter amid the struggles?
It’s hard to believe there’s rainbows behind those clouds now. But maybe there is. For now, the rain simply feels interminable.