BOSTON — After adding another game to the loss column with Sunday’s 115-104 defeat to the Houston Rockets at TD Garden, the Boston Celtics were left searching for answers. Kyrie Irving, for his part, offered few words to that endeavor during his postgame interviews.
“Just gotta play better,” Irving said, four words that seem to sum up Boston’s confounding season.
“It is a commitment to winning, and being consistent with it,” Celtics center Al Horford said. “That has been our biggest problem.”
“It could be any number of things, but we have to play better,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Individually and collectively, we have to play better.”
That same search for answers for Boston’s bizarre season has come from all corners of the NBA over the course of the past few months. As the preseason favorites to emerge from the East and reach the NBA Finals have stumbled time and again, rival scouts and executives have asked one question over and over again: What’s wrong with those guys?
The assumption has always been that in time, the Celtics would figure it out. After all, the NBA is a league based on talent more than anything. And the Celtics have plenty of that at their disposal. But as they continue to listlessly plod through the final few weeks of the regular season, there is another question that has begun to linger on everyone’s lips: Will they ever get this figured out?
Judging by the way things are going, it’s hard to argue they will.
Sure, the playoffs don’t start for another six weeks — another 18 regular-season games. And the saying around the NBA that there is “always time” to sort things out in the league’s 82-game season has become an adage for a reason.
But, at this point, time is not on Boston’s side. And there is little evidence to back up the theory that the Celtics will figure things out other than, simply, the expectations of so many that they will.
The absence of backup center Aron Baynes, who returned Sunday, for significant stretches was an underrated loss. But that’s the only lengthy injury absence Boston has been forced to deal with all season.
Unlike their competition atop the East — the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers — the Celtics have not had to work through the obvious adjustment phase that comes with making team-altering trades. In fact, Boston is almost the exact same team today that it was back in September when training camp began.
Yet here the Celtics are, having lost five of their six games since the All-Star break as they head out on a weeklong West Coast trip that continues a March schedule featuring 12 possible playoff teams among Boston’s 14 opponents.
“Right now, unfortunately, we are going through a really bad stretch,” Horford said. “This is when our group, we need to make sure that we stay together and even closer because I know it’s hard. We’re the first ones that don’t want to lose, but we just need to continue to work because we feel like we can be better than this.”
So does everyone else — which is what has made this season all the more frustrating to those watching it. For example: Boston has victories over Milwaukee, Toronto and Philadelphia — and losses to the New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns and Chicago Bulls.
The one thing Boston had consistently done is play up — or down — to its level of competition. But then came this past week, when the Celtics were completely eviscerated by the Raptors in Toronto on Tuesday before coming home and getting demolished in the first half Sunday by the Rockets, trailing by 28 at one point before a late run made the final score more palatable.
Throughout it all, the Celtics have remained a team that feels as if it is less than the sum of its parts. Irving has played some of the best basketball of his career on the court but has been in a funk for some time off of it, as his terse postgame conference Sunday showed.
He has also openly clashed with the team’s young core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier at times. Each of them has had issues on the court this season — but it was the three of them, and not Irving, who were on the court at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth Sunday when Boston surged back into the game.
Then there is Gordon Hayward, who has struggled more often than he has succeeded after missing all of last season with a gruesome leg injury. Those issues were exacerbated in the five games he has played after the All-Star break, in which — after going 2-for-6 against Houston — he’s now 7-for-25 from the field.
Meanwhile, Marcus Morris — who was one of the few beacons of consistency during Boston’s rocky 10-10 start to the season — has gone off a cliff since the All-Star break, shooting 24-for-67 (35.8 percent) overall and a ghastly 8-for-38 (21.1 percent) from 3. That, along with Stevens’ benching of Morris for Brown in each of Boston’s past three games, led to a series of questions after Sunday’s loss about the possibility of reinserting the third-year forward into the starting lineup.
Stevens, though, dismissed the notion that things in Boston can be fixed as easily as swapping out members of the starting five.
“You know, obviously, we’ll look at everything,” Stevens said. “We’ve been looking at everything after every game. Every night when you go to bed, every minute when you wake up, you’re always thinking about that. There’s things that — that are helpful in that, and things that are not helpful. And if it’s the root of your issues, then I think the — then a small tweak can help. I’m not sure that that’s our root [problem].
“[Celtics president of basketball operations] Danny [Ainge] has said this on a number of occasions: When we have six or seven guys playing well, we’re pretty good. We’ve just got to get back to that.”
Those moments haven’t happened nearly enough for Boston this season — which is why, with less than a quarter of the season remaining, the Celtics are facing the very real possibility of having to attempt to reach the NBA Finals without having home-court advantage in a single series. And, if the playoffs started today, they would almost certainly have to beat all three of their biggest rivals — Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Toronto — to do so.
That was not the path anyone in Boston, nor anyone around the league, was anticipating the Celtics would have to tread when this season began. It is, however, the one they have placed themselves on.
And unless something changes soon, it’s one that they won’t be on nearly as long as they expected, either.