By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics are in a funk. They have let two extremely winnable games slip away over the last week, two losses that will likely come back to haunt the team as playoff seeding shakes out over the next six weeks.
At least they’re a pretty angry bunch, a group eager to prove that the miscues of the past week are a minor hiccup and not a fatal flaw.
Sunday night’s win that wasn’t against the Thunder was just as frustrating as Tuesday night’s embarrassing loss to the Nets. Kemba Walker was once again trapped in a corner in the final seconds of regulation, and once again coughed up an important possession. With the Celtics up by a point with 13.8 seconds left, Walker took the inbound pass with Chris Paul draped all over him. Walker dribbled further into the Thunder side of the court, only to be chased down by Dennis Schroder, who snagged the ball from the unsuspecting Walker and casually put it in off the backboard to give Oklahoma City a 105-104 lead. Jayson Tatum missed Boston’s last-second attempt, and the Celtics lost for the fourth time in their last five games.
The Celtics have struggled to put together full games during their recent slump, compounded by their late-game collapses. The end-of-game execution — or lack thereof — has led to a pair of much-needed wins to fall by the wayside, at a time of the year when wins cannot be taken for granted.
“It’s frustrating,” Walker said after the loss. “I mean, that’s the second time it’s happened in three games. I just got to be better and just find a way. Gotta finish those games out.”
“It was the right reaction by Kemba to try to get it out and on the other side of the court,” said head coach Brad Stevens. “99.99 percent of the time he’s able to get to that corner and somebody has to chase him and foul him from behind. This time, he wasn’t able to do that. I know he’s down about it, but they made a good defensive play on that.”
Walker also lost Boston’s final possession of regulation Tuesday night against the Nets, when Rodions Kurucs locked him up to force a jump ball. Brooklyn won the jump, and then tied it when Caris Lavert was fouled shooting a three. Lavert hit all of his freebies and the Nets won in overtime.
Boston’s starting point guard has not been himself since he missed five games out of the All-Star break with knee soreness. Walker is hitting just 32 percent in his three games back, and doesn’t have the explosiveness that he showed off in the first half of the season. Walker uncharacteristically missed a driving layup on Sunday night with just over two minutes to go that would have put the Celtics up by three. He was just 4-for-14 against the Thunder, and hit just two of his nine attempts from downtown.
“I’ll be better,” he vowed.
Making Sunday night’s turnover even more frustrating was that Stevens had a timeout in his back pocket that he should have used once the Thunder made it clear they were going to double Walker and not foul. He didn’t, and instead, the Celtics coughed up what should have been a win for the second time in less than a week.
While Walker is receiving most of the blame, Sunday night’s loss was on the entire team. They’re at least acknowledging their recent string of frustrating basketball — now they have to go out and do something about it.
“We obviously have stuff to work on. I think that’s how the NBA works,” said Gordon Hayward, who had a team-high 24 points on Sunday night. “You go through runs and stretches were you feel really good about yourself, and then it’s like the world is coming to an end too. As individuals and as a team, we can’t get too high on the highs and lows on the lows. This is a low for us and we have to claw ourselves out of it. I think we’ll find it again; we’re still the same team. We just have to pick each other up and find ways to win basketball games again.”
“Every team goes through some adversity. We’ve been through ups and downs, and we’re just going to stay together,” said Walker. “Definitely some very tough losses, but we have to do our best to hold our head high. Losses come and you can learn from them. You can choose to get better. Or you can go the other way and everyone can go to their individual corners. But we’re going to get better and continue to stay together.”
With this recent case of hiccups, the Celtics have watched the Toronto Raptors open up a three-game lead for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Miami Heat are now just 1.5 games behind Boston for the three-seed. The Celtics had a chance to clinch a playoff spot on Sunday night, but that will have to wait at least another few nights.
“It’s a sickening feeling with this game and the Brooklyn game,” said Stevens. “Those are games you can get. You have to figure out a way to get them.”
Boston has two tough road games this week, visiting the Pacers on Tuesday night before a matchup with the top-seeded Bucks in Milwaukee on Thursday night. Stevens is confident that his team will figure it out and once again start winning games they should be winning, and maybe even steal a few that they shouldn’t.
“Most good teams go through stretches this like, and usually two or three a year. This is our second one, so hopefully we can nip that in the bud and not have a third one,” added Stevens. “But the road doesn’t get any easier. These are tough games coming up and that’s good — you have to do tough things to get out of a rut.”