WASHINGTON D.C. — You could attempt to sum up the various discouraging aspects of the Boston Celtics’ loss to the Washington Wizards in roughly 100 different ways.
You could start with the offense, which dove off a cliff as soon as Jaylen Brown went to the bench and never really re-started. You could note the accuracy of Brad Stevens calling the first-quarter scoring “smoke and mirrors,” since Brown was unlikely to keep up his torrid pace with zero help from his teammates. You could talk about the defense, which allowed John Wall to pick them apart for 29 points and 12 assists, completely controlling the pace and flow of the game. You could harp on the ball movement (which failed to find Brown, despite his hot hand in the first quarter) or the turnovers (which were legion on both sides). You could even fret about Brown’s post-game comments, in which he sounded frustrated at any number of things and people.
Or you could describe the Celtics’ game as simply as Brad Stevens.
“I think that of the things I’ve learned in this is, it can all change on a dime either way,” Stevens said. “So my concern is that we play better. As far as tonight, if you’re just looking at tonight as in its own individual game we weren’t very good.”
The Celtics were not very good. That quote was a half-hearted sidestep by Stevens — Boston wasn’t very good on Wednesday, but they haven’t been consistently good on the offensive end since Kyrie Irving went down. Things can change on quickly, but change usually requires some type of outside force, and without Irving or Hayward coming back, it’s not entirely clear how the Celtics would change. It stands to reason the Celtics would struggle offensively without their offensive catalyst, but the results — 24th in the league since March 11 — would be nerve-wracking for anyone around the organization going into the playoffs.
Some players bristle a little now, when asked about their injured star. Greg Monroe asked why questions about adjusting to Irving’s absence were still being tossed around after Sunday’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
“We understand we don’t have Kyrie, Smart, all the other guys, we get it,” Rozier said. “At the same time, we still have to go out there and play.”
Still, the team is well aware of the issues. Al Horford, who said the team’s lackluster performance started with him, noted how the pace of the game slowed down after the first quarter, when Brown’s run-and-gun 3-pointers were flying and ratcheting the speed up. Even when Brown went out in the second, the Celtics kept turning the Wizards over or forcing misses and getting out in transition.
“I felt like we were just steps slow on everything that we did offensively,” Horford said. “At this point of the year, we can’t afford that.”
Like his team, Horford started out well. In the first half, he was aggressive — taking the ball directly at Washington’s forwards and finishing around the rim. In the second — again, like the team — his numbers tailed off.
“There has to be concern,” Horford said. “I know that it’s the second-to-last game of the season but we have to be better. That starts with me. Give them credit, they played better than us tonight.”
Stevens seemed resigned to the inconsistent nature of his young team.
“Our offensive is going to be what it is,” he said. “You’re going to have moments where you can score, where you don’t score, when you’re feeling good, when you’re not, whatever. Transition defense. Moving the ball. Sharing the ball.”
But if the Celtics hope to advance to the second round, they will need their offense to be more than it was on Tuesday. They won’t be able to replace the pressure Irving put on defenders, and the gravity he created simply by having the ball in his hands. Rozier is a talented young guard, but the defense just won’t collapse onto him the way it collapsed onto Irving, and he’s not a crunch time killer like Irving, picking defenses apart when the Celtics need a bucket.
Stevens can blame Tuesday’s loss on effort, but the Celtics — sans Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and two-to-three years of experience for Brown and Tatum — might just not have enough firepower.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys on our team trying to get ready for that level of intensity in the playoffs,” Brown said. “I don’t think Washington played nearly as well as they could have, and we still fell short. It’s just a mindset and a level of focus we have to get back to. An understanding that this is it. We have to come out and compete. Getting in that mindset is what it’s going to take.”