BOSTON – Just two nights after their 28-point collapse against the Brooklyn Nets, the Boston Celtics dropped an excruciating game to the New York Knicks in double-overtime. To make matters worse, on the first night of a back-to-back with a road game against the Cleveland Cavaliers staring them in the face on Monday night, four Celtics logged 40+ minutes in the loss.
“In a game like this, two great teams playing against each other, they made a couple more plays than we did,” head coach Joe Mazzulla said. “Those plays get magnified and we just have to move on. I thought we got better, I thought we did a lot of things on both ends of the floor. I thought they made a few more plays than we did.”
Robert Williams and Malcolm Brogdon were out for Boston, but Jalen Brunson was missing for New York. It was a tough battle between two East playoff teams, but the Knicks found an edge.
Immanuel Quickley stepped up in a big way, pouring a career-high 38 points to go along with eight rebounds, seven assists, four steals, and two blocks. He shot 15-of-28 from the field and 5-of-12 from beyond the three-point arc.
For the second game in a row, Boston blew a double-digit lead just to go down by double digits later in the contest. They broke down in multiple facets of the game, with Mazzulla pointing to “empty possessions on the offensive end, and then transition and fouling.”
This disintegration in play has quickly become synonymous with the Celtics, as they have stumbled out of the All-Star break. Even in their wins, things haven’t been pretty.
But Mazzulla isn’t worried.
“Zero concern. Just because there’s 17 games left doesn’t mean that there’s any difference in how I expected the season would go,” he said. “And you obviously want to be playing your best basketball later in the season as you get closer to the playoffs, but this is a tough stretch. We have to learn from it so that we can use it later in the year.”
Boston is now 3-3 since the break, but their three wins have all come with asterisks, and their three losses were all brutal.
The Celtics barely scraped by the Indiana Pacers. They nearly fell to the Philadelphia 76ers before Jayson Tatum nailed a game-winner. And in what should have been a convincing victory, the Cleveland Cavaliers made a surge at the end of regulation to cast some doubt about Boston’s ability to close.
As for the three losses, one was a near-wire-to-wire loss to the Knicks, and in the other two, the Celtics held double-digit leads before crumbling.
“We’re not locking in as much as we need to,” said Celtics big man Al Horford. “This is the second time that we kind of have had a lead, we feel good about it, a team makes a run, and we just kind of let him back in the game. And throughout the season, you’re gonna have adversity. We’ve played pretty good basketball most of the year, and this is a time where you tighten up, you fix some of these things, some of these issues, or it goes the other way. And the character of our group, the kind of guys that we have, I feel pretty confident that we’ll figure it out. Obviously, you don’t want to drag this out. And like I’ve said earlier, we want to play our best basketball. But this is a part of the season. There are ups, there are downs, and within games, we’re playing well, then we kind of go on a rut, seems like we can’t get out of it. And we have to stay the course, and I feel like we’ll be fine. But definitely, it’s not pleasant to go through this right now.”
After a hot offensive start to the season, the Celtics have struggled with consistency on that side of the floor. They go through rough patches where they can’t seem to buy a bucket, and at the same time, the opposing team runs free in transition, causing the sort of lopsided runs which have determined their last two contests.
With the playoffs just over a month away, the Celtics should be gearing up for a huge run, but instead, they’re dealing with quintessential on-court issues. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s also not something they’re getting too concerned about.
“I mean, we haven’t played well,” said Tatum. “We played better today than we did last game. But overall, we’ve still had a great year. I think we just hit a little rough patch right now, which is fine. We would have liked to win every game coming out the break, but probably wasn’t going to happen. But we’re still in a great position, and we still got time to figure it out. And we’re going to. Some minor things, but we know we’re capable of.”