By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — At 17-7, the Boston Celtics are in a pretty good spot. A much better spot than many expected when the season began.
It could have been better though, had they not let two winnable games slip away over the past two nights. Their losses to the Pacers on Wednesday and the 76ers on Thursday exposed a real problem for the Celtics, which is their lack of execution down the stretch.
Having Marcus Smart on either night would have helped, but there is no excuse for letting what would have been quality wins slip away — key wins against potential playoff opponents. Boston blew a double-digit fourth quarter lead in Indy, and then wilted down the stretch against Philly. The Celtics have now lost two straight, and are no longer perfect on their home floor.
Now they hit an odd five-day break in the schedule, giving them plenty of time to stew on what they didn’t do in crunch time their last two games. Careless turnovers, bad shots and poor execution plagued Boston’s fourth quarters over the last two nights, highlighted by their inability to get the ball inbounds when they were down just three with 25.7 seconds left against the 76ers. Jayson Tatum waited and waited for Jaylen Brown to cut and get open, only to have Brown and his defender, Josh Richardson, both end up on the floor. Tatum’s pass skipped out of bounds and the 76ers took over. Joel Embiid drained one of his two freebies to essentially seal the game.
“We didn’t get the ball in,” head coach Stevens said of the play following the 115-109 loss. “You got to be able to do those things in the biggest moments. We didn’t get that done.”
The Celtics let their lapses on offense lead to lapses on defense, and that meant some tense minutes for everyone down the stretch.
“We have a lot of lapses during these games. We have stretches where we’re playing super well. And then we have lapses,” said point guard Kemba Walker. “We just have times where we’re just — it’s bad. It just looks really bad. So we just have to tone that down a little bit, just try our best to put a 48-minute games together. And that’s going to take everybody.”
Walker did his part in the first half, but struggled as the 76ers locked him down in the second, going just 1-for-8 from the field and 1-for-5 from three-point distance. Brown cooled off in a big way, finishing with just eight points on 3-for-9 shooting, and Tatum had another inconsistent night, going just 5-for-18. He did hit some key threes in the fourth quarter, but overall, Tatum’s night was not pretty.
Daniel Theis (16 points, five rebounds) and Enes Kanter (20 points, nine rebounds) both had solid games and did their best against Joel Embiid. But the Celtics had no answer for Philly’s mammoth, who bullied his way to 38 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. He scored 16 of those points in the fourth quarter, as rim protection escaped the Boston defense. And the C’s kept losing Michael Scott, letting the Philly forward score 15 points on 5-for-7 shooting from downtown.
The two straight losses allowed Philadelphia to leapfrog the Celtics in the standings, with Boston now sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Moving on and learning from these two defeats will be imperative for the Celtics over these next five days.
“I think two emotional losses for us. Certainly, it’s tough in games that go down to the wire. I felt like we had chances in both,” said Gordon Hayward, who had 19 points on Thursday night. “But it is what it is. It’s a long season, it’s part of it. We’ve got to try to learn from it and move on but we can’t blame it on legs. We’re professional athletes. We should be able to handle that.”
“One thing I love about us is that we’re not quitting. We’re still fighting through adversity,” added Walker. “When things are getting rough we’re not putting our heads down, man. We’re competing at a very high level. So it can only go up from here.”
The Celtics are saying all the right things after their most disappointing loss, and most disappointing stretch, of the season. Now we’ll see if they can take those words and turn them into actions.