Before I get carried away, I should stop and say a few words in fairness to Brad Stevens, who is still in the first few months of a six-year, $22 million contract and is still adjusting to life as an NBA head coach. He's still getting a feel for what a 48-minute basketball game is like, how it differs from 40 and how he needs to adjust his approach.
It showed today. It really, really showed.
Stevens made a bold move today against the Atlanta Hawks - midway through the third quarter, the coach removed his starting frontcourt from the game and stuck with his reserve big men for 18 minutes straight. Stevens had made a conscious decision - Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass and Jeff Green were watching the rest of this one from the bench. For Kris Humphries, Kelly Olynyk and Gerald Wallace, it was time to shine.
"It was a little bit different," said Courtney Lee. "It was different. I'm not going to lie.
"I think it was after that Detroit game that [Stevens] came into the locker room and said the one mistake he made was taking me out when I had it rolling. I think he's still learning. He's figuring out how the game flows right now, so he's coaching off of that."
Maybe Stevens went too far in the other direction this time around. To a certain point, his moves in this one were understandable - the starters weren't producing, and Humphries and Olynyk were both looking better than they had all year. The coach was simply riding the hot hand.
"It was pretty obvious that today, the guys who played at the end were the guys who played well today," Stevens said. "It's hard to take out a guy like Hump, who's got 18 and 10 at the time, and Kelly, who's got his best game as a pro going. So we just stuck with them."
But here's the thing. If you're going to stick with those guys down the stretch, you need to have a plan for how they'll execute together in the final minutes. You need to have a cohesive offense that can run plays together, generate scoring opportunities and finish. If you don't have that, then forget it. You're better off playing Green and the rest of the starters, even if they look sluggish and ineffective.
Instead, the Celtics' offense down the stretch was Jordan Crawford isolation, Jordan Crawford isolation and oh, by the way, Jordan Crawford isolation. Shockingly, it didn't work.
Now, before I get carried away, I should stop and say a few words in fairness to Crawford, who is still in the first few months of his tenure as a starting NBA point guard and is still learning the ropes. He's still figuring out how to play the position - when to attack, when to defer and how to differentiate between the two.
But... sweet Jesus. He was absolutely dreadful at that today.
The Celtics were down by one point with a minute to go, 92-91, and from there, they had three chances to score and finish 2013 with a win. Instead, their offense consisted of Crawford, standing at the top of the key, dribbling, staring at the floor. On one possession, he went a solid 15 seconds without ever looking up to even consider a pass. There was no offensive structure at all - it was merely chucking and praying.
Is this really the best the Celtics can do?
Crawford had little to say for himself after the game, which the Celtics lost by a 92-91 final after his three missed jumpers in the final seconds. When asked about the execution down the stretch, he offered a mere nine words:
"Make a basket so we can win the game."
That was it. Crawford's never been a great quote, but come on. To have no substantial thoughts after a game when you were the primary ball-handler for three consecutive plays to close it out? Make a basket, win the game? Really? That's all you got?
Some guys are reserved with the media because there's value to staying coy about your trade secrets. With Crawford, you don't get that impression. More likely, there's just nothing going on in his head.
You could tell Crawford was dying to come through in this moment. He's always eager for chances to prove himself, and this was a great one - especially in a holiday game against a Hawks team that spurned him a year ago. But in his moment of truth, Crawford failed miserably.
"I felt like it was a good opportunity," Stevens said. "And Jordan lives for that, so I think he'll probably beat himself up over it. But that's OK. We play again Thursday."
The one bright spot in this game: Many of the guys that Stevens stuck with down the stretch did quite well. Olynyk finished with 21 points, a career high, on an efficient 8-of-11 shooting clip. Humphries pulled down 10 rebounds. Wallace made hustle plays all over the floor. It just wasn't enough.
"We were just going," Humphries said. "Kelly played great and did a lot of things - passing the ball, scoring the ball, knocking down shots. Our second unit was playing well together, so we were just trying to ride that. Unfortunately, we weren't able to get the win."
Maybe if they had any semblance of an offense, it would have helped. Sadly, though, this team still doesn't have a clue about how to execute down the stretch.
"Is there an exact answer to that?" said Stevens, asked about his late-game attack plan. "I don't have it. I'm continuing to search for it, and I think we all need to continue to search for it. Did we have our chances? Yeah, we had our chances. Did we do everything we could to take advantage of our chances? I'd say no."