By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — One step forward, two steps back.
That’s been the trend of the Celtics season so far. While they’ve looked like a much better team than the one that started the season 10-10, Thursday night’s loss in Houston was another few steps back for Boston.
Their usual shortcomings were back in full force against the Rockets. The Celtics were crushed on the glass 54-38, with Houston pulling down 16 offensive rebounds. Clint Cappela took full advantage of the C’s lack of presence underneath the basket, with nine of his down 18 rebounds coming on the offensive end. Houston scored 46 points in the paint, and another 27 off free throws.
The three-ball wasn’t falling for Boston, but it didn’t stop them from chucking it up, hitting just 12 of their 31 attempts from downtown. And they once again struggled to score with Kyrie Irving on the bench, allowing Houston to rip off some gigantic runs as their star player got a breather. He went to the pine late in the first quarter with Boston trialing 22-19, and re-entered with the C’s down 48-33. The Celtics trailed by just four when he took a seat late in the third quarter, but by the time he was back with just under nine minutes left, the Rockets owned a 103-91 lead. That deficit was too big for the Celtics to overcome in a hostile setting.
Jaylen Brown was the lone bright spot off the bench, scoring 18 points off 7-of-12 shooting. But he was as minus-22 in his 24 minutes, which shows just how bad the bench was against the Rockets. With Aron Baynes out with a broken hand, Brad Stevens had to rely on Daniel Theis for extended minutes. The big man struggled mightily, and was an astounding minus-27 in just 18 minutes.
The Celtics had no answer for James Harden, either, though no team really has over the last two weeks. Harden dropped 45 points on 11-of-26 shooting, and Houston threw out multiple screens to get him open from beyond the arc. It paid off, keeping Marcus Smart from taking up space under his jersey, and Harden hit nine of his 18 shots from long distance. The Celtics were set on not letting him get to the free throw line, but that was a giant dud for them as well. Harden made it to the charity stripe 17 times, hitting 14 of his freebies.
It was another frustrating evening for the Celtics. If there is anything they have been consistent at this season, it’s being inconsistent against the better teams in the league.
Irving led the way with 23 points for Boston, and once again stepped up after the game to dish out some tough love to his teammates, especially on the offensive end.
“I think the next step for us is just knowing that there are just other opportunities for you to be a basketball player other than having the ball in your hands,” Irving told reporters after the loss. “You don’t need the ball to just dribble, dribble and shoot a fadeaway every single time. You can cut backdoor, you can screen for a teammate. There are other things to help an offense flourish rather than just standing out on the perimeter.”
While Irving didn’t call out anyone by name, that sounds like a dig at Jayson Tatum. He has been wildly inconsistent at times in his second NBA season, which is to be expected. But Thursday night was one of his worst games of the season, as Tatum went just 2-of-7 from the floor, finishing with just four points in his 29 minutes.
Sometimes, such criticism can be constructive, and it should be noted that Irving and Tatum are extremely close. It was reported Thursday afternoon that Irving and Stevens got into a heated spat on the Boston bench last month, which sparked the team’s eight-game win streak. The C’s held two meetings over the last week, airing out all their grievances. That appeared to help, as the Celtics won their next two.
But in Houston, the Celtics were back to playing a disjointed form of basketball. It goes back to what Irving and most of the Celtics have been saying all season: Their talent alone will not get them to where they want to be. It’s a message Irving reiterated following Thursday night’s loss.
“We have the talent, but it’s not enough in this league,” he said. “It’s not. For us, it’s just about making sure we’re doing the little things. I was talking to a couple of our guys, a couple of our veterans, and just making sure we stay on our young guys, as well as us having the responsibility of doing the little things.”
At some point, that message should get through to everyone. Until then, the Celtics will remain a skittishly inconsistent team.