For Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics, it is like experiencing a recurring nightmare game after game.
They all seem to start out the same recently, with the Celtics’ lackluster play for long stretches leading to a sizable deficit that they chip away at before succumbing to one more big play from their opponent.
It was like that last week against the Milwaukee Bucks. And again Monday versus the New Orleans Pelicans. And once more Wednesday night with the Celtics falling to the Dallas Mavericks, 113-108, at the TD Garden.
The Celtics, now 4-8 since the All-Star break and sporting a 23-25 record, continue to make the same mistakes, which has even the usually mild-mannered Stevens openly frustrated with his team’s performances.
“We got to respond better in the middle of the game and we just haven’t. That’s the bottom line,” Stevens said. “I feel bad that the new guys are hearing this because they don’t deserve it because they haven’t been a part of it. But it’s been the same old script.”
Against the Mavericks, the Celtics followed their usual pattern of falling behind early and didn’t do nearly enough to respond right away.
Luka Doncic poured in 24 of his game-high 36 points in the first half and a barrage of 3-pointers in the second quarter from the young superstar buried the Celtics into a 64-45 hole at halftime.
Stevens has seen this before, with the Celtics failing to stay engaged for a full 48 minutes and their all-too-common lapses prove fatal. Stevens believes it’s what the team has become known for around the league.
“They played a helluva game and they took us out of it,” Stevens said. “That’s probably our reputation to not respond for 10 to 12 minutes, and that changed the game.”
To the Celtics’ credit, they did battle back, with Kemba Walker serving as a spark. Boston trimmed the deficit to 109-107 after a Marcus Smart tip-in off a Jayson Tatum missed layup with 16.4 seconds remaining.
The surge came too late, though, as the Celtics proved they can ratchet up their intensity and energy only in the most dire of situations, but can’t sustain it over the course of the game.
Stevens wasn’t in the mood for moral victories following another loss. He’s called out this version of the Celtics for their inability to handle adversity time and time again, but yet, nothing has changed. The Celtics aren’t very good at many things these days except for their remarkable inconsistency.
“I’m not going to sit up here and talk about what we can do and what we hope to do and all that crap,” Stevens said. “I’ve been around good teams and I’ve been around bad teams and we’re very average right now because we don’t do it every night. We’ll see how good we can get if we start to do it every night.”
Stevens has guided less talented teams in Boston to far better results. But this squad doesn’t play like past versions of the Celtics that Stevens has coached.
The defense is abysmal, with the Celtics in the bottom third in the NBA in defensive rating. Boston has been a top 10 team in that category for most of Stevens’ tenure. In four of the last six games, the Celtics’ opponent has shot 49 percent or better from the field.
Stevens has taken his share of the blame, and while the skill sets are there, the grind-it-out mentality and defensive presence have been absent this season.
“Celtics basketball is about scraping, getting after guys defensively,” said Jaylen Brown. “One through five, we just haven’t had that in the starting unit or off the bench. As a team, we just haven’t had it, and years past, we have.”
Following the setback to the Mavs, the Celtics sit in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, but are only one game back of the fifth spot. It might not matter since the Celtics don’t look any bit the part of a team that can deal with the rigors of a playoff series, but Marcus Smart isn’t ready to pack it in.
“We just got to keep fighting,” Smart said. “It’s not easy. It’s not going to be easy, but we got to keep fighting. We can’t let this deter us from what we’re trying to accomplish and getting to where we want to be. We obviously have a long road ahead of us, but I believe in this team, got faith in this team, trust this team and we just got to keep going.”
Stevens has had to challenge his team constantly this season. He offered another challenge to his team if the Celtics have any hope of saving their season.
“It’s not time to dream about the future, it’s time to do it now,” Stevens said. “We need to play better. We need to show up and compete every night with great urgency all the way through the game regardless of what just happened. I don’t really care about the future and I don’t really care about the first 48 games, like, what are we going to do? That’s the question. It’s time to show up.”