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BOSTON - He sat there livid with his head in his hands.
On the one-year anniversary of the day he became a Celtic, Jae Crowder had a career-high 24 points. But he was furious when his night finished after a sixth foul.
Despite the career night offensively, Crowder knew he was abused down the stretch when coach Brad Stevens went small and he had to guard Paul Millsap. They outscored the Celtics 28-15 after a Brad Stevens timeout at the 6:18 mark in the fourth. The Hawks went on a 17-5 run while the Celtics transitioned to a small lineup with Crowder at the four, with Millsap scoring seven points in a row.
On the second of two three-point plays in a row during the run, Millsap blew right by Crowder to get to the rim. Stevens took out Jared Sullinger and put Jonas Jerebko and Amir Johnson back into the game. But it was too late.
The Celtics led most of the game, but the cracks ruptured in the middle of the fourth quarter.
"We got exposed tonight again for the third time in a week," Stevens said. "Millsap made some great plays individually and we came undone a little bit."
Despite the tough matchup for Crowder, he was indispensable for the Celtics all night. "There was no question he was competing at a high level," Stevens said. "He kept us in the game in a lot of ways."
Crowder said it was a special day for him on the trade anniversary, saying he was lost before coming to Boston. But now he feels his team is lost.
"I don't think we're playing with the same type of swagger," Crowder said. "We don't show any passion or excitement anymore. We've got to get back to that."
Isaiah Thomas dug even deeper.
"Not just for myself, but for this whole team, we gotta figure it out, get our head out of our asses and stop feeling sorry for ourselves," the team's leading scorer said. "For whatever reason, that's the problem. We're not playing with no sense of urgency. We're out there feeling sorry for ourselves and I don't know why."
Thomas continues to carry the offense, but is getting little support. But for every point he scores, he gets caught out of position when switching on the pick-and-roll. With Marcus Smart's return still unclear, the Celtics' defensive rotations have been inconsistent and slow.
"[Atlanta] crushed us in the paint," Stevens said. "Those guys were very physical. We were late reacting the whole night."
Thomas has been exposed by the Hawks in every matchup, with Jeff Teague running a 1-5 high pick-and-roll with either Al Horford or Paul Millsap. This forces Thomas to switch onto the rolling big man, who Teague always finds. When the Celtics' defensive rotations are sharp, they can usually double onto the big without getting caught out of position for a corner three. But on Friday night, those rotations were two steps behind the play and Millsap and Horford saw the rim with ease. Atlanta dominated down low, with 80.5 percent (33 of 41) of their field goals inside the restricted circle.
ISAIAH THOMAS WANTS TO SEE SOME SMILES
After riding the high of a double overtime game against the undefeated World Champs, the Celtics have seemed somewhat listless. Isaiah Thomas sees a group of players with their heads up their rear ends.
"It's a mental thing for us. Today we just didn't have had no energy, no sense of urgency. We almost led the whole game, but you wouldn't have thought we did just because of the energy.
"Nobody was smiling; nobody was feeling happy. For whatever reason, that is taking its toll on this team. It's gotta turn around quick."
Thomas was pressed for what the root cause is, but the solution is more clear than the question.
"I don't know honestly. We just haven't made adjustments. The last two teams go to one or two plays and we just play the same way each and every time down. Atlanta played probably one play the last four to five minutes and they scored on us. As players, we have to figure that out.
Part of being a young team is relying on the coach's guidance. While Stevens is clearly among an elite class of coaches in the league, he can only coach. He cannot do. Thomas understands that for a young team to make the leap to a contending team, accountability falls to the guy with the jersey.
"Coach can't always help us out on the court," Thomas said. "I think this team always looks for Brad. When things are going wrong, we're always looking to the bench. But a mature team doesn't always look to the coach."
Stevens sees the situation through the optics of a coach trying to accentuate the strengths, as narrow as they may be at times, of his roster.
"We're thinking about that answer every minute of every day," Stevens said pregame. "I think that we've got to find ways for us to hopefully put guys in position to utilize their strengths as much as possible. It's a lot easier when you've got a dynamic offensive player that draws so much attention.
"Whether it's just scrapping some of the things we're doing or whether it's just doing things better, whether it's just maybe finding a little bit more consistency. I think there's a lot of things that can go into it."
While tearing up the drawing board is far from necessary, the Celtics need something more than personnel additions to be a consistent contender. A three-point shooting team that is at the bottom of the league at hitting open threes does not logically compute out to a contender. So bringing in another scorer seems like a natural answer.
Danny Ainge acknowledged earlier this week that he is on the hunt for another scorer. Thomas is all aboard the hype train for whomever that may be.
"We could use [another primary scorer]," he said. "Our team is fine right now, but we could always use another guy that could put the ball in the basket consistently. But I guess that's Danny's job to find one."
Until then, Thomas wants the players to figure it out.
"You can't panic, but as players we gotta look in the mirror and look at ourselves first and then go from there. We gotta figure it out ourselves and figure out what got us the win this season. When we win, we play at a high level. When we lose, it's like a totally opposite team and we gotta stop that."
WHEN THE BASKETBALL GODS CHANGED THE CHANNEL
Calling the first half a disaster would be insufficient. The first three minutes of the game resembled a YMCA game on seniors night, with a flurry of lost balls and terrible misses.
"I thought the first three minutes were sick," Stevens said. "It was terrible basketball both ways."
Both teams cleaned up their act in the second half, with the Hawks scoring 67 points. That was a season-high in a half for a Celtics opponent.
The Celtics recorded 21 turnovers, a season-high. It was their first game with more than 20 turnovers this season and the most turnovers in a game since they coughed it up 22 times against the Sixers on December 15, 2014.
"Our collective spirit waned," Stevens said. "We have some work to do."
Do the Celtics need to get their heads out of their butts?
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