With a chance to advance to the NBA Finals, we have a team that has blown leads of 14 points and 17 points in back-to-back losses to the Miami Heat.
We have a team that can’t adjust to a simple zone defense, a team that loses all the 50-50 balls, and a team that appeared to stop playing before the sand ran out in Thursday’s Game 2.
What are we supposed to make of all this? Does this mean Kyrie Irving wasn’t the whole problem, after all?
The Celtics are supposed to be the feel-good sports story of our COVID fall. With the Bruins eliminated, the Red Sox trying to lose, and the Patriots in a good-looking (so far) rebuild, the Celtics have a chance to light up New England with an old-timey Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals, complete with LeBron James and all the emotion that entails.
It looked like the path was cleared for Stevens’s guys. Milwaukee’s Greek Freak was taken out by Miami. Boston was able to beat the Raptors without playing any games in Toronto. The only thing standing between the Celtics and the Finals was a fifth-seeded Miami team, which sounded like a sweet deal until the Heat spanked the Celtics in Games 1 and 2.
Now the Celtics are reeling. The progeny of Auerbach are family feuding.
A lot of stuff happens in professional sports locker rooms that we never learn about. Many of the rooms have a little sign that says something like, “What you see here, what you say here, let it stay here!”
There are times, however, when uncomfortable truths do not stay in the room, and Thursday-in-the-bubble was one of those times. Knowing there are no media in their locker room anymore, and that 98 percent of all reporters are Zooming from places like Newton and Waltham, the Celtics staged a clubhouse donnybrook after Thursday’s horrible loss.
Unfortunately for the Celtics, the Globe’s Gary Washburn and ESPN’s Malika Andrews were only about 15 feet away and heard the whole thing from outside the walls of the room. They heard it go on for up to 20 minutes, which is a marathon session of competitive chair-throwing and name-calling.
“We could have been 50 feet away and we would have heard it,” Washburn said. “There were league officials all over the place, and they didn’t know quite what to do. It was just a lot of guys yelling and stuff hitting the walls. And we saw Marcus Smart leave the room to use the bathroom and it still went on when he was gone.”
Yikes. Trust me when I tell you that Washburn is not a man given to hyperbole. If Wash’s pants were on fire, he’d probably do nothing for a few minutes, then maybe say, “Does it feel a little warm in here to you?”
Smart blew off Thursday’s postgame media session, and Jaylen Brown was the only player who acknowledged the locker room rumble, chalking it up to “emotions flying around.” There was no Celtic media availability Friday.
The Celtics can rebound from this. When the 1984 Celtics were routed by the Lakers in Game 3 of the Finals, Larry Bird said, “We don’t have the players with the heart sometimes that we need … We played like sissies.”
Those guys came back to win their series in seven games.
What about the 2020 Celtics?
They could use a heapin’ helpin’ of Boston Garden crowd support, but there’ll be none of that in Game 3 Saturday. The squabbling Celtics are going to have to find inspiration and leadership from within.
It starts with Stevens, now in his seventh season, still looking to take his team to the Finals. The Stevens Celtics led a hobbled Cleveland Cavaliers team in the conference finals, three games to two, in 2018, then lost the last two games, including Game 7 in Boston. Last year they were humbled in a sad second-round series. Now this.
It cannot be easy coaching a team of AAU warriors who have been told they are special since they were 12 years old. Mssrs. Smart, Tatum, and Brown can be a handful. Kemba Walker brings veteran gravitas to the room, but like his young teammates, he has never won anything in the NBA. None of these Celtics have won anything in the NBA yet, and that includes the head coach.
It’s time for Stevens to step up. Give us a little less Fred Rogers and a little more Fred Smerlas. Go Cro-Magnon for a few days. Challenge your players’ manhood. Call out some of your young players in the media. Draw up a zone offense. Throw the picket fence at the Heat and tell them not to get caught watching the paint dry.
Its time for the 2020 Celtics to summon the spirit of Red and Russell and Cousy and Bird. Time for them to stop losing games and throwing chairs. Time for the 2020 Celtics to earn the everlasting love they always get around here.
Starting Saturday night in the bubble.