AP NEWS

Celtics Stay Mired in Funk

March 4, 2019

BOSTON -- Maybe a cross-country flight is just what the Boston Celtics need to do some serious soul-searching.

Or, maybe, six hours together in a plane that is taking them to play four games in California while they try to sort out their more-alarming-by-the-day struggles will only further fracture a teetering basketball team.

Celtics fans undoubtedly hope for the former and fear for the latter. That fear was blatantly evident in the form of multiple rounds off boos on Sunday afternoon at TD Garden.

The Celtics dug themselves a massive hole and could never climb out en route to a 115-104 loss to the Houston Rockets in a nationally televised game. Boston trailed 65-43 at the half and by as many as 28 in the second half. In fact, Houston led for the final 45:29 of the 48 minutes.

It was yet another disheartening beatdown for a Celtics (38-26) team that is now 1-5 since the All-Star break and residing in the unenviable five-seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. For a team with so much talent and so much promise, the exact causes for this late-winter unraveling have been difficult to firmly pin-point. But chemistry feels like an issue.

“It could be any number of things,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “But, it’s we have to play better. Individually and collectively, we have to play better. I’ve said many times I have to coach better, we have to do better.”

Boston was butter and Houston (38-25) was a hot knife. James Harden, the NBA’s leading scorer at 36.6 points per game, torched the C’s for 42 points (14-for-31) before fouling out late. But it was his teammate Eric Gordon who really made the difference. Gordon scored 32 points and made 8-of-12 from 3-point land.

The Celtics defensive rotations were late and uninspired, and Gordon and Harden made them pay with a combined 14 triples. By the time the C’s decided to ramp up the energy in the fourth quarter, it was way too late.

“The game was lost in the first 30 minutes,” Stevens said.

Perhaps in a show of their own frustration, the Celtics’ locker room cleared out rapidly after the game. Only the always-professional Al Horford and guard Kyrie Irving fielded questions from a media scrum. Irving, staying true to his recent mercurial form, was not in a talkative mood.

Irving did about 80 seconds with the media and offered a total of approximately 35 words.

He was asked what he has to do to turn this thing around as a leader?

“Just got to play better,” said Irving, who finished with 24 points, nine rebounds and six assists in 36 minutes.

He was asked if he thinks the team can come together on this upcoming four-game West Coast trip that starts Tuesday night at the defending champion Golden State Warriors?

“We’ll see,” he said.

Those answers don’t exactly exude confidence. Then again, trying to exude confidence at this point, as Irving actually tried after recent losses, would come off as fraudulent. Things are real messy for the Green right now, there’s no other way around it.

A team once built on ball movement and defensive effort, showed neither for the bulk of Sunday’s game.

The Celtics surrendered 33 first-quarter points, allowing a potent Rockets team to get open threes and easy driving lanes. It steadily got worse in the second quarter, and offensively Boston relied on consistent sets of one pass and then iso.

“Right now, unfortunately, we are going through a really bad stretch,” said Horford, who had 19 points and six rebounds. “This is when our group, we need to stay together and even closer because I know it’s hard. We’re the first ones that don’t want to lose, but we just need to continue to work because we feel like we can be better than this.”

The Garden crowd was certainly not appreciative of plopping down their hard-earned money to see that level of play. There were frequent choruses of boos and calls for players to be benched.

To that point, Boston did find some late momentum with an energetic lineup comprised of Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Daniel Theis that cut it to 10 (106-96) in the fourth quarter on a dunk by Brown with 6:08 left.

Brown had 15 points, nine in the fourth quarter, and six rebounds and was a plus-five in 28 minutes off the bench to make his case for an increase in playing time.

Starting forward Marcus Morris, meanwhile, went scoreless in 18 minutes and didn’t play at all in the fourth quarter.

Stevens, who tries not be reactionary, may need to think about shaking things up.

“We’ll look at everything -- we’ve been looking at everything after every game,” Stevens said. “Every night when you go to bed, every minute when you wake up, you’re always thinking about that. There’s things that are helpful in that and things that are not helpful. And if it’s the root of your issues, then a small tweak can help. I’m not sure that that’s our root.”

Well, desperate times call for desperate measures.

Follow Matt Langone on Twitter @MattLangone.