Soft Celtics need a hard message from their quiet coach

Mike Petraglia
November 10, 2016 - 10:54 pm

Brad Stevens is searching for ways to inspire his team this season. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

WALTHAM - Brad Stevens needs to grab hold of his team - and now.

The team is just seven games in and what's become very alarming is that his team is soft where it matters most.

They can't defend and they can't rebound. Those are two areas that come down to desire and heart. It's not so much about not having Al Horford and Jae Crowder. Yes, two front court starters are injured and out. But the effort that the Celtics have put up in the last two games is inexcusable. Just how inexcusable?

They have allowed 76 points combined in the last two opening quarters, including 42 to Denver Sunday night at home. They trailed 77-52 at the half and lost, 123-107.

You would think the mild-mannered Celtics coach would finally lose it, at least a little, and go off on his team. He went as far as to call his team "finesse" after Sunday's no-show. He said his team has lots of skill, inferring of course, that they don't have the toughness to go with it. 

"He says thing are gonna change," Isaiah Thomas told me after Thursday's practice. "If you don't play the way we know how to play then he'll do his job and make subs. Taking a guy's minutes, that's a threat right there, so if that doesn't change things then you shouldn't be on this team."

After spending post-practice Monday telling everyone how they got punched in the mouth and didn't punch back, Marcus Smart said the Celtics needed to respond with heart and desire. They proceeded to come out and get outscored 34-8 in Washington Wednesday and lost, 118-93, to the previously 1-5 Wizards. Not only did they allow the Wizards to shoot 50 percent - for the game - they were out rebounded 54-31.

So what was the reaction of Smart Thursday after practice?

"It's hard for me to understand and comprehend and [for] everybody on this team," Smart said. "We're not used to that. We're usually the team that's doing the punking so it is hard for us but we've got a long season. This team knows what we have to do. It's on us. We've got to find it. We're the ones out there playing so we have to find what's going on and we have to fix it."

These Celtics predicted to win 50 games and even challenge the defending NBA champion Cavaliers in the East can't even hold their own against the dregs of the conference right now. What happened to that swagger that was all the rage at the end of last season?

"It's crazy in practice. We got it. We're competing with each other," Smart added. "It's just when we get out on the court and go against different teams, we're not competing. We don't have that swagger. [Last year] every loose ball, we were on it. We had a lot of grit. We were a team that fought. Teams knew that and teams knew it was going to battle when they came to play. This year, they don't feel that." 

These Celtics are hot-butter soft right now.

"That's what kind of what we talked about today, we don't want to be that team, where you can go in there and hit them and they'll lay down," Thomas said, echoing Smart's thoughts just moments later. "We've never been that team and these last couple of games that's been us. And we gotta do a better job of showing the world again that we're one of the hardest working teams. And one thing we're going to do each and every night is give it our all. We gotta change that about us because we haven't been doing that."

The Celtics can score. They're seventh in the NBA at 107.7 points per game. Problem is they can't stop anyone, allowing a league-worst 112.7 points per game.

"Maybe guys are too focused in on that end," Thomas said. "Guys are able to make more plays, guys are able to make shots. It's hard to play on both ends, man. But we've got to get back to that. We've got to stop focusing on the offensive end, focus on the defense, that's going to dictate our offense and get us easier shots and get guys to score more baskets and play more freely."

In their 3-4 start, the Celtics are allowing an astonishing 118.5 points in their four losses. In those losses to the Bulls, Cavs, Nuggets and Wizards, they're getting out-rebounded by an average of 49.5 to 36.3.

It's only seven games and there's plenty of reason to think that once Crowder and Horford return, this will be an insignificant sample size in an 82-game season.

Stevens is in position of trying to coach up emotion and intensity in his team for the first time in his four seasons in Boston. His teams haven't always been great defensively but they've never lacked passion and urgency - until now.

"I think that ultimately you'll find out about the effort thing in the course of pretty quickly," Stevens said Thursday. "And I didn't think it was as much effort last night as it was. The block-outs are the things we can control, but I didn't think it was like an effort [thing]. We were getting into the ball. We were active. We were pretty active in help. I thought we had two or three groups, second and third quarter especially that were really good defensively. I thought that they guarded us exceptionally well. In the first quarter, we didn't score or rebound enough to kind of stem the tide. But, hey, you can't focus your attention on that, because there's other stuff that we have to focus on. If that becomes a major issue, then you're in trouble."

Right now, the Celtics are in trouble. Just watch the games and the hanging of the heads every time something goes wrong or an Emmanuel Mudiay goes off for 24 points in the first quarter, as was the case Sunday night.

After Thursday's practice, Stevens attempted to explain part of it away on his young roster. He was referring to rookie Jaylen Brown, who is trying to fill in for Crowder and Terry Rozier, the second-year guard who has suddenly been thrust into the role of back-up point guard behind Isaiah Thomas. Jordan Mickey is coming off the bench to back up Tyler Zeller, who is filling in for Horford.

"We have a lot of guys that haven't done this yet that are playing," Stevens said. "And I think that's something we learn over time. The best thing that we all can do is move on to the next play and do our jobs as well as we can. And certainly that happens as a result of when another team's drubbing you, you see that any time in any sport. The best of the best can move past it, but everybody gets affected a time or two in a game like that in being frustrated."

Back to the suggestion that maybe a lineup tweak will do the trick. Like Thomas said, that move will grab their attention. But the truth of the matter is that's only a bandaid on a wound that's getting deeper and deeper. And everyone on the team - players and coaches - will tell you that.

"Well, the Cleveland game we played well right out of the gate. [Wednesday] we played poorly right out of the gate. And against Denver they really separated in the last six minutes of the first quarter, although we didn't play great out of the gate. But it wasn't like you could separate first group versus second group necessarily," Stevens said. "We'll give thought to lineup change. We'll make the right thing for our team. But the bottom line is the guys that are playing are going to play because of our numbers in some part. But I think that's certainly worth considering. But I think it's also not like we've put together 48 good minutes."

And that starts with showing some Celtic pride, something that's been stunningly absent so far this season.