BOSTON — As the final seconds ticked off the clock during the Boston Celtics’ latest head-shaking loss on Wednesday night, this time to a Phoenix Suns team that entered with the worst record in the NBA, a smattering of boos could be heard inside TD Garden.
This wasn’t the sort of jeers that rained down early and often during a loss to the New York Knicks here in late November. That game’s title of “lowest point on the 2018-19 teeter-totter” remains firmly intact. But the hissing Wednesday night was more out of annoyance from fans who yearn so deeply to embrace a team that keeps finding ways to make it so damn hard to love.
Make no mistake, the Suns have intriguing young talent and entered playing some excellent basketball. Yes, the Celtics, already chomped on by the injury bug, watched Aron Baynes break his hand in the opening minutes of Wednesday’s game. And yet it’s still hard to excuse the loss, particularly considering Boston’s three off days leading up to Wednesday’s game.
Even as the Celtics were ripping off eight consecutive wins, it was fair to wonder if it was the product of an easier schedule or improved play. A loss Saturday in Detroit could be explained away for a heavy-legged team that had taken a flight before 13 consecutive games.
But it’s hard to offer a pardon for Wednesday night. The Celtics got smashed on the glass (56-37), giving up a whopping 21 offensive rebounds (which the Suns turned into 20 second-chance points despite 8-of-22 shooting after those initial misses). And Boston committed 16 turnovers while fumbling away as much as a 12-point first-half lead.
The Celtics’ second-half box score was an eyesore. The team shot 30.6 percent and had almost as many turnovers (9) as field goals (11). Boston generated a measly four makes inside the arc.
"Really sloppy,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "Really sloppy.”
Inside the Celtics’ locker room, Jayson Tatum tried to explain how Boston could look so good for large stretches of its eight-game winning streak and then stumble in consecutive games.
"Human nature. Nobody's perfect,” said Tatum. "We try our best to be as perfect as possible. But we've got to do better.”
Kyrie Irving, who scored a game-high 29 points on 10-of-19 shooting with 10 assists, remains unfailingly patient with his young team but admitted there needs to be more cohesion and consistency regardless of who’s available.
“We just have to have consistency amongst all our units, whoever is in. Just a cohesion where the ball is moving, and guys actually see other players be in the position to score the basketball, so that means delivering on time, actually caring … actually trying,” said Irving.
"Certain possessions where, down the stretch, it’s like for some games that we’ve played, when we try, we’re in the game all the time. And when we don’t, we’re clearly not."
The fact of the matter is that Irving needs more help more often. Jaylen Brown elevated back to a starting role but finished with just six points on 3-of-9 shooting over 23:34. Ultra-aggressive in the infancy of his return from a back bruise, Brown didn’t attempt a single free throw and grabbed only one rebound during his floor time.
Tatum put up 18 points but needed 17 shots. He added eight rebounds and four blocks and yet his second-half line was somewhat unremarkable. Both Tatum and backup point guard Terry Rozier were 2-of-7 shooting after halftime.
If the Celtics are going to suggest depth is the hallmark of this year’s team then they need to show it. Injuries created opportunities for players like Brown, Tatum, and Rozier to thrive last season but those players have rarely asserted themselves on nights the Celtics need someone other than Irving to save them.
Heaving a healthy Horford or Marcus Morris Sr., who sat out Wednesday with his own lingering knee soreness, will certainly help. But we’re more than a third of a way through the season and the Celtics are still waiting for the younger core to show they can consistently impact winning.
That’s some lofty expectations, particularly for a trio under 25, but Irving can’t always come to the rescue when things go awry.
And it’s not just the young trio that the Celtics need more from. Gordon Hayward had a tough second half, making just 1 of 3 shots and finishing minus-15 in less than 14 minutes of floor time.
During Boston’s eight-game win streak, we saw glimpses of how good all the individual pieces on this team can be. There’s too much talent here to lose games to teams like the Suns.
This team is too good to keep taking a step back after it takes two steps forward.
"I was just thinking about it while I was at my locker: this is the NBA season,” said Irving. "You just want to have great pockets of games, you have good consistent run, and then now you have a lapse. Now it’s build it back up, continue to work every single day to be a very great team, it’s a work in progress every day.”
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