Garden Report: After Heartbreaker Against Sixers, Celtics Struggling To Find Optimism

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics lost another painful one against Philadelphia tonight - make that 18 of their last 21. After stumbling against a rebuilding young Sixers team, it's tough for the C's to be hopeful for the future.


OK, real talk here - when you take in a game between the 2013-14 Celtics and the 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers, you're not exactly watching because you're dying of suspense over the contest's final outcome. It's not a matter of winning and losing.

Rather, you watch with an eye on long-term growth. Neither one of these teams is winning a thing this year, and that's OK. Instead of obsessing over division titles and playoff berths, each of these two teams is focused on developing talent for the long haul and learning good habits. They both have bright coaches, heaps of young talent and a tantalizing long-term outlook. There's reason for both of these teams to be excited about 2019.

But in 2014, it's clear that one of these squads has a clearer rebuilding vision than the other.

Case in point: the final 30 seconds of this game. The C's had the ball and a one-point lead, angling for an insurance bucket. Jared Sullinger drove the lane, he kicked it out, and he appeared to have a game-clinching assist.

What happened next epitomizes everything you need to know about these two teams. The Celtics got a missed jumper from Kris Humphries, a journeyman with a $12 million contract who will be 29 next week, the Sixers grabbed the rebound, and they won the game thanks to a driving floater at the buzzer from Evan Turner, a 25-year-old on a mid-level deal having a breakout season.

Yeah, the Sixers won the game, 95-94, but that's not even the point. More importantly: You tell me who's got a brighter future.

"I thought we got back and set our defense in that situation pretty well," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of the final play. "A good player made a great play. Sometimes, it's as simple as that. This isn't one of those games where I'm going to be beside myself about our execution at the end. Our execution was pretty good."

It's true. The game was well-coached on both sides, and the Celtics executed well and fought hard to win it. But the Sixers earned this one, and not just because of the final play. They got 16 points, eight assists and six rebounds from Evan Turner - just another day at the office for Philly's walking triple-double threat - and promising rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams added 10, seven and five.

The Sixers played well in concert. They're looking like a team with a very good young nucleus - one that already runs smoothly and will only be better next season with Nerlens Noel healthy and another lottery pick in the fold. They're a team that appears to be rebuilding exactly right.

As for the Celtics? This one was typical. They gave a ton of minutes to a group of so-so veterans, guys who played well enough to make tonight's game respectable but not to a level that gets anyone excited about the future. There's nothing inspiring about watching Humphries and Gerald Wallace play out the remainders of their bloated contracts.

For Wallace, who's 31 and playing for his fifth NBA team, there's no future optimism. Only current urgency.

"We've got our backs up against the wall now," he said. "There's nowhere to go but up from here. It just seems like when things start going bad, they really go bad for you. It seems like everything that can go wrong, goes wrong for you."

Humphries has a similar attitude. Asked to find a silver lining amid 18 losses in the C's last 21 games, he had trouble formulating an answer.

"If you have animals, you go home and hang out with them," he managed. "Spend time with family. Focus on your hobbies when you're not practicing. And when you are at practice, practice hard and get ready for the next game."

Humphries says he has two dogs and enjoys their company, but that's little consolation for the Celtics as they look ahead. Big picture, the problem is this: In the NBA, you always want to be either winning or reloading, and the C's appear to be in this weird funk where they're unable to do either one.

For the moment, all they can do is keep fighting through adversity and hope they're able to learn something from it.

"You have to be really mentally tough to learn through and grow through tough circumstances," Stevens said. "But you have to be really mentally tough to win a playoff series. You have to be really mentally tough to come back from a bad loss and win the next night.

"If you're not mentally tough, you have a ceiling in this business. So you might as well learn it now. These kinds of games and our response to these kinds of games will tell me a lot about what we'll look like down the road."

Right now, it's hard to say what the Celtics will look like a year from now. And it's even harder for them to be more optimistic than their neighbors down I-95.

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