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New year, same team: Celtics “lack mental toughness,” says Udoka, yet everything feels like an excuse

Udoka, Robert Williams III, and Jayson Tatum all had thoughts on Boston’s inability to close following the collapse in New York.

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Insanity, a la Albert Einstein, is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” He might have used that witticism to describe the world as best he could, or at least the world as best he knew it. There are ways that he’s wrong, and ways that he’s right, but at the end of the day, most people who expect something to change or to improve, but refuse to change their approach to said task are being insane.

You’ve heard it before, whether from a boss, a coach, a teacher, or any sort of mentor, really. I’ve referenced it in my writing plenty of times before. Unfortunately, I believe I’ve done so when writing about this very basketball team, the one we’re all fond of in some way, shape, or form. The one that yet again, fell at the hands of their own mistakes last night, mistakes that allowed the New York Knicks to storm back from 25 down to defeat the increasingly hopeless Boston Celtics at the buzzer, 108-105. Indeed, the Celtics once held a double-digit lead, and indeed, the largest lead the New York Knicks held was the lead RJ Barrett gave them in the form of a game-winner.

The Boston Celtics lost this game because of insane tactics. The Boston Celtics then proceeded to talk about this game, for the most part, the exact same way they’ve talked about every other collapse so far this season.

“It’s a lack of mental toughness to fight through those adverse times,” Ime Udoka said following the loss — a semi-refreshing spin on the usual “we just didn’t execute” spiel, but it merely led to more of the same.

“It’s across the board,” he continued. “It’s a turnover here, a bad shot here, a missed defensive assignment here, and several missed rebounds tonight. So, it’s a lot of different things. A calming presence to slow it down and get us what we want is really what you need at that point. And sometimes we all get caught up in it.”

Who is that calming presence to slow it down? Who is the player who can get this team what it wants? Needs? How can they... not get caught up in it?

Those questions weren’t answered at last night’s press conference. They were raised, moved past, and raised again. “Either we’re going to make some adjustments and get tired of it or it’s going to keep happening,” Udoka said. “... We need some leadership. Somebody that can calm us down and not get rattled when everything starts to go a little south. I think it snowballs between our guys.”

The option presented by Udoka’s “either” statement is not a difficult choice to make: everyone, from the front office on down to the ballboys, wants this team to make adjustments that will help it win. These snowballs are becoming more and more prevalent, and it doesn’t appear that anyone knows how to stop it. They seem to acknowledge that they need to, but fail to offer up any concrete solutions.

“It’s not open gym. You can’t just play the same way the whole game,” Udoka said of his team’s continuous close closes. “So, we have to have better understanding of that and get the quality of shot that we want to stop a run and not just get caught up in it and four, five guys make the wrong play and it starts to snowball.”

“I feel like [Udoka] is 100 percent right, to be honest,” said Robert Williams on Udoka’s mental toughness comments. “We get rattled a lot. We’ve just got to find it within ourselves to grit and to fight and to just come together even when stuff is not going our way. Like coach said, it’s obvious we get rattled when we face adversity.”

I’m getting redundant here, but... how do you plan to find it within yourself? How do you plan to come together when things aren’t going your way. Questions like the ones I’ve just posed will keep coming from fans, journalists, and eventually, from up top — that is if they aren’t already — if these responses persist without action. An adage far more familiar than Einstein’s insanity quip is that “actions speak louder than words.” But how does that adage shift when the words are rarely, if ever, met with any sort of actionable response?

Not every loss can be linked to this team floundering in the final minutes, essentially handing their opponent a free “W” on the schedule. But when it becomes as frequent as it has been this season, it’s hard not to view every single outing in the exact same sort of light.

Sure, certain games on the schedule stick out like sore thumbs — the pathetic loss in Chicago game in early November, when Boston allowed its visitors to outscore them 39-11 in the fourth quarter comes to mind; when they gave up a 20-point lead in Cleveland, too; when the Spurs came to town on Wednesday and literally tried to hand the Celtics the win. But when a team does this so often, it’s hard to forget the lowest lows, and it’s even more difficult to pick out the highs.

Has there even been one? Wait, Jaylen Brown scored 50 points! Oh, yeah, it was against the Magic. Well, they clobbered the Suns... but every team is due to have an off game once and a while, I guess. I mean, hey, they hung with the Bucks on Christmas...?

These are the thoughts I find myself grappling with as I attempt to point out a good moment from this season. Now, I’M starting to feel like I’m going insane.

That’s a feeling I would guess most Celtics fans feel of late. As I continue on in my life and journalism career, I tend to find myself drifting further away from fandom for teams that I cover — while I appreciate the groundwork Bill Simmons laid out for us all, I don’t find it productive in a job search to have “WHAT THE F*** MARCUS” seen as my pinned tweet. Yet even as I attempt to better separate my fandom and my coverage, I find myself frustrated by this season, particularly by the overall effort, but even more so by the excuses that are offered after witnessing a massive failure. Telling me that this team “needs to get better” and then watching it fail to get better day after day is the equivalent of someone having groceries covered in mold, only to shut their fridge and complain, day after day, that they have nothing to make a sandwich with.

Here’s a thought: head to the grocery store and pick up some fresh cold cuts. Easy fix.

Fixing the Celtics is far more challenging than tossing some defective deli meat in the trash. But the fact that no one seems to have any idea how to fix anything, and just keeps talking about need to fix things is hardly the recipe for success. It’s a recipe for the constant, grating disaster that this season has felt like, 18 wins be damned. This is a team that has too much talent to be losing games like they have all season. Watching them play feels like being handed the same book, over and over again, just with a slightly different cover art.

The excuses and the promises to look in the mirror are, indeed, becoming tiresome. The Celtics keep making them, though, and signs point toward them continuing to do with every passing loss. And at this rate, there will be many, many more.

“We just have to harp on and keep reiterating that whatever was working when we were getting the lead in the first half or whatever, just to not shy away from it,” Jayson Tatum said. “Keep doing the things that got us to that point and don’t get bored with the details and the little things.”

Newsflash: We’re bored. Bored with the excuses and the losses that feel quite repetitive; those things are linked together, most of the time. Without an actual commitment to change, the list of excuses, losses, and reasons to be bored will just get longer.