BOSTON — There wasn’t a lot of comfort to be found for the Boston Celtics after Wednesday’s 117-109 loss to the New York Knicks dropped them back to 9-9 on the season.
The players seemed shell-shocked, and a little at a loss. Brad Stevens was out of strong words about toughness.
“I know we’re going to ask about specific parts of the game,” Stevens said, “and I’ll answer anything you want. But this is a lot of things. We have a myriad of issues we have to fix.”
But reporters didn’t ask much about specific parts of the game because the specifics don’t really matter as much as the big picture. After a loss like Wednesday’s, where the Celtics came out lifeless against a team with eyes for Zion Williamson much more so than the postseason, how the team comes together in the wake of its early struggles feels like a more important question to raise than Stevens’ substitution patterns.
After all, there have been tangible reasons the Celtics have pointed to at times that explain away some of the struggles. Gordon Hayward is still working his way back. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are adjusting to new roles. The Celtics need to get to the rim. They need to get to the line. They need to get everyone involved. Al Horford needs to score. The bench needs to contribute.
Except on Wednesday, an abundance of those things happened.
Hayward had one of his better performances of the season, scoring 19 points and getting to the line five times.
Tatum and Brown attacked the rim hard and pitched in 15 and 11 points, and eight and five rebounds respectively.
The Celtics got to the rim. They took 33 free throws, tying their season-high. The Celtics have taken 24 or more free throws in seven games. In the six prior to Wednesday, they were undefeated.
The Celtics had six players in double-digits, including Marcus Morris off the bench.
All of those things were true, and the Celtics still trailed the Knicks by 26 at one point on Wednesday. They couldn’t overcome Trey Burke down the stretch.
“I mean, we’re not playing good basketball,” Hayward said. “I think it still is early. It’s not that early, but it’s still definitely early.”
He’s right, but the one problem that has plagued the Celtics all year — the shooting — doesn’t appear to be going away. The Celtics finished 39.2 percent from the floor and 30.3 percent from three on Wednesday. They also shot a dispiriting 71.9 percent from the free-throw line. Tatum finally forced his way to the line nine times, but he only made six of them. Brown went hard to the basket, but he finished just 3-for-6.
“I think myself included, we get some good looks, and they’re not falling for us, we have to continue to shoot them, but shoot them to make them, not just out there shooting them,” Hayward said.
At some point, the shots simply have to fall. On Wednesday, the Celtics tried and tried to follow Stevens’ request that they get to the rim to open things up, and they succeeded to an extent. It didn’t matter. Whatever is broken with this team simply refuses to click back into place.
“There’s no more time to wait,” Irving said. “It’s not that I’m pushing the panic button or anything like that, I just think that there’s no more time to wait for games to start off and then go down in a hole where even our home crowd has been antsy and guys are pressing and stuff like that. It’s a long game, but I think there are some controllable things in the beginning of the game that we can fix.”
The Celtics have Thanksgiving off before traveling to Atlanta and Dallas. A loss (or, heaven forbid, a pair of losses) in those two games would send fans screaming to the trade machine. The questions — like the boos that finally began in earnest on Wednesday — would rise into a hearty roar.
But maybe those questions don’t have easy answers. Maybe the wrong questions are being asked. Or maybe everything boils down even more simply.
“I just don’t know that we’re that good,” Stevens said. “Maybe it’s not a wakeup call if you keep getting beat. We have to play better. It’s not because we’re not capable of being good. It’s not because we weren’t good at one time in our lives. It’s that you’re good if you play good, and the results are speaking for themselves.”