By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Celtics are finding new and exciting ways to lose games.
In true frustrating fashion, the Celtics rediscovered their offense in the second half Monday night in Charlotte, only to see it vanish again when they had a chance to seal the deal. Just when it seemed like the Celtics were a single basket away from shoving the Hornets back into their hive, they went nearly four minutes without putting the ball in the basket. A 10-point lead quickly evaporated as Kemba Walker took over, and the C’s were again left searching for answers following an excruciating defeat.
Fresh off a 60-point outburst in a losing effort Saturday night, Walker poured in 43 points against Boston. He did most of his damage in the fourth quarter, scoring 21 points in the game’s final frame. He did it with his array of layups, jumpers and a dead-eye shot from downtown. Kemba scored 18 of 20 for Charlotte in their pivotal run to erase that double digit deficit, icing the game with a step back three with 33 seconds to go.
The Celtics are well aware of Walker’s offensive acumen. In recent years, he was the kind of player the Celtics could at least make life difficult for in their quest to pour in buckets, almost goading them into forcing shots in their attempt to be “The Man.” But that killer instinct on defense is one of the many attributes still missing from this year’s Celtics squad, and Walker took full advantage.
“He was steady for them. I came to the bench and I was just like ‘There’s just one primary guy out there that’s killing us,'” said C’s guard Kyrie Irving, who was once again Boston’s only steady threat on offense with 27 points and 11 assists. “He pretty much kept them in the game. Everybody else was at their averages or a little bit lower so, us as a team, we just have to be more conscientious of that. He was the only one that was being aggressive doing some things to generate offense. Next time we play them, it will be a different story.”
Even when Walker missed it led to good things for the Hornets. With just over two minutes to go and Charlotte clinging to a 110-108 lead, Walker missed a jumper. He got a second chance when he corralled the offensive rebound, but proved to be human again, clanging a three. But with the Celtics disjointed and out of position, a sight all too common so far this season, Walker got another offensive board and fed Tony Parker, who calmly drained the jumper to give Charlotte a 112-108 lead.
That 12 second stretch is essentially Boston’s season in a nutshell. It’s been right there for the taking, yet the Celtics find themselves far out of position and unable to take advantage.
With Monday night’s 117-112 defeat, the Celtics are now 9-8 on the season and 4-6 on the road. The mantra, again, is to have a short memory and move on, but at this point, there are just too many losses to forget and move on from. Boston’s offensive woes are beyond early season rust and are reaching “startling trend” status. Letting a 10-point lead with 9:37 left to play should lead to a W, even if a professional scorer like Kemba Walker is feeling it. Going nearly four minutes without a basket is unacceptable for a team with as many weapons as Boston.
It has all left Brad Stevens digging for solutions. He tried a change in his starting lineup, bringing Gordon Hayward off the bench, but that didn’t yield much of a change. Hayward is clearly not himself as he works his way back from missing all of last season, but was still on the floor for 31 minutes. That included crunch time minutes when it was very evident that Hayward couldn’t buy a shot, as he finished the night with just four points off 1-for-6 shooting. He can’t attack the basket with the ferocity he once had, and he is uncertain with the ball in his hands, slowing down the flow of the offense. Until he is right, or closer to right, he shouldn’t be out there with the game on the line.
Always an optimist, Stevens still took away some positives from Monday night. It would appear much of the focus is getting Hayward back to his usual self, but at some point, the Celtics can’t sacrifice victories as they attempt to do so.
“I did see some more of what I would refer to as ‘Celtics basketball’ than I’ve seen at least over the better part of the season,” Stevens said. “I leave a lot more encouraged now than discouraged when I came into the game. [The change] was more about getting Gordon in the right groups for him. We’re still going to be a work in progress, obviously, nothing is set in stone with that.”
The Celtics had six players finish with 10 or more points, but it felt like Kyrie was the only one finding the bottom of the cup. He sensed it too, as he forced a hero three after Parker’s jumper late in the fourth. The attempt clanged off the rim, and Parker hit another jumper to put Charlotte up by six. The C’s were just 9-for-32 from beyond the arc, a woeful evening for a team that relies so heavily on the three-ball.
Blowing a double-digit, fourth-quarter lead is not a great way to follow up Saturday night’s home dud against the Utah Jazz. The silver lining is they actually had a double digit lead in the fourth quarter to let slip away, but once again, we’re left questioning a team that was supposed to have all the answers heading into the season. To put it bluntly, the Celtics stink right now.
This could just be an early season bump in the road, one that will eventually build character on a team that is still searching for their identity. But as we get further and further into the calendar, the concern will only grow, and the demand for answers will only get louder, both from the fan base and from within.