By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Stop us if you’ve heard this before. The Celtics looked lifeless and listless, unwilling to give a 48-minute effort, and suffered an embarrassing loss to drop further down the Eastern Conference standings.READ MORE: Julian Edelman Announces New Gig As Inside The NFL Analyst, Plus A Jump Into Entertainment Industry
It’s a lede that could be used for a number of games this season, and is once again being dusted off for Wednesday night’s 117-110 defeat to the Cavaliers in Cleveland. Boston fell behind by as many as 21 in the first half, made a nice push in the third quarter, but ultimately came up short in the end, and are now back to .500 on the season.
We’re 40 games into the season and still begging the Celtics to give us a full game’s worth of effort on a nightly basis. It’s frustrating and it will likely lead to an early demise for the team come playoff time. But even the postseason isn’t guaranteed at this point, which is unfathomable given the NBA’s structure. The Celtics are currently sitting in seventh in the East, flirting with a spot with the NBA’s new play-in round of the postseason.
It’s that bad.
“You hear me talk about resolve, and it seems we don’t have a lot of characteristics of a really good team,” Celtics president of basketball ops. Danny Ainge said Thursday morning during his weekly interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich. “We have some talented guys, but our team isn’t playing as well as we’d hoped.”
The Celtics came out like a team waiting for a trade at next week’s deadline. Sure, they were on the second leg of the a back-to-back, which meant no Kemba Walker in the lineup, but even with tired legs and without its starting point guard, the team should still be better than an 18-point first quarter.
But the Celtics were held to an 18-point first quarter in Cleveland, which was the third-lowest opening frame they’ve turned out this season. That gross first bled into a gross second, as the Celtics went five minutes without a hoop at one point. Boston turned the ball over 12 times in the first half, and left the court for halftime with a 17-point deficit staring them in the face.
A 17-point deficit to the worst offensive team in the league. Also pretty gross.READ MORE: Patriots Mock Draft Roundup: Mac Jones Or Trey Lance In First Round?
There was some life in the third, with the Celtics nearly outscoring their first-half output by dropping 36 points in the quarter. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum led the way, and the Celtics were within striking distance thanks to a late flurry in the frame. A 9-0 run by Brown had the Celtics within seven with a minute to go in the third, and 10 straight by Tatum early in the fourth (part of a 10-4 run) had Boston within four with 9:30 left to play. Tatum finished with a team-best 29 while Brown poured in 28.
But that was the problem for much of Wednesday night. Instead of that team ball that led to success in years past, this was basically Tatum and Brown going iso-wild. It’s hard to blame them with the likes of Semi Ojeleye and Jeff Teague playing meaningful minutes, but when either of them were cold, as they were in the first half, the Boston offense went stagnant. Neither player was on from deep, but that didn’t stop Tatum and Brown from hoisting up shot after shot from three-point range like they were Marcus Smart. The duo combined to go 5-for-23 from downtown, and the Celtics were just 10-for-38 as a team from deep.
The Celtics once again folded down the stretch and that comeback bid was all for naught. They were outplayed by the NBA’s worst fourth-quarter team, with the NBA’s worst offense going on a 14-5 run to close things out. Collin Sexton (29 points) and Darius Garland (25 points) scored with ease, and the Cavaliers shot 54 percent for the night.
Feel good if you want about Rob Williams (he was great again with 13 points and 14 rebounds off the bench) or Marcus Smart looking like Marcus Smart again (19 points in his first start since returning). But the lack of focus far outweighs any silver linings we may be tempted to take from another horrendous loss. The effort and focus just weren’t there for the majority of the evening, and the team let their offensive woes lead to just as bad defensive woes. It showed at the most fundamental part of the game, with the Celtics missing nine free throws, going 20-for-29 from the stripe. They played a turnover free second half, but the dozen giveaways in the first half proved to be too much to overcome.
“All we’re going to keep trying to focus on is playing good basketball,” Brad Stevens was forced to say yet again after the loss. “We saw more of that in the second half and didn’t see enough of it in the first, and it bit us. If you have a stretch like that against an NBA team, you’re usually in for a bad night. And when you’re playing a team that played with the kind of urgency and the way they did tonight, they made us pay for that.
“I just want to play good basketball,” Stevens added, essentially begging his team at this point.
To sum up the flummoxing loss, there was too much iso ball, too many turnovers and missed free throws, and nowhere near enough effort. These are issues that an extremely young or extremely new team deals with. In the Celtics case, they just don’t have the overall talent to deal with an off or cold night from one of their two — or both — stars.MORE NEWS: Iceland's Arnor Traustason Eager To Make Mark With New England Revolution
Maybe reinforcements are on the way next week. But the Celtics are making it really difficult for Ainge to decipher if this team is worth investing in, or one that needs to come to terms with what they are and focus on developing for the future.