The Boston Celtics led the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden Thursday night by as many as 25 points, and for all but four minutes of the game. Unfortunately, those four minutes of trailing came at the very end of regulation, and ended in a Celtics loss and a fresh indignity in a season that is already overfull of them. After showing shockingly little resistance as their huge first-half lead slipped away, the Celtics are taking this loss particularly hard. The vibes were already not great as Boston’s second-half offense went in the toilet and their lead evaporated, and then R.J. Barrett banked in a ridiculous game-winning heave and brain-boomed the Celtics to hell.
This season the Celtics have already done the Veteran Call-Out and the dreaded Emotional Players-Only Meeting; on Jan. 6, they reached the Coach Decrying Mental Weakness phase of internal dysfunction. Head coach Ime Udoka, who so far this season has at least outwardly performed optimism while occasionally delivering tough but moderated messages about Boston’s play, seemed pretty well disgusted by what he saw down the stretch Thursday night. “I think it’s a lack of mental toughness to fight through those adverse times,” Udoka told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. “It’s guys getting rattled when it’s not the end of the world. You still have a 12-point, comfortable lead, and you gotta end that run. It’s not open gym. You can’t just play the same way the whole game. 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.”
The Celtics won eight of 11 following their players-only meeting back in early November, but in a pretty sure sign of bone-deep mediocrity have never risen more than two games above .500 this season. Thursday’s loss was their sixth in nine games. An ugly pattern has formed: According to the NBA’s stats service, Boston has played the second most “clutch” games this season (23) but has the 23rd-ranked clutch offense and a disastrous minus-7.9 net rating down the stretch of close games, which is how they’ve managed a 7–16 record in games that are within five points in the final five minutes. Probably their inefficiency in late-game scenarios is not helped by their tendency to shift into isolation offense, something that no one on the team is really any good at, but Udoka is ready to blame this pattern on a lack of grit among his players: “It’s been the same result, and it’s some kind of mental toughness there, where something goes a little bad and we all start to drop our heads.”
Because so much of what the Celtics do on a nightly basis—and, for that matter, are as an expression of a long-term organizational philosophy—revolves around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, naturally you will think of Udoka’s venting as directed primarily at those two players. Far be it from me to intervene: Brown and Tatum are the jewels of exalted former general manager Danny Ainge’s ballyhooed asset-collection project, and I personally take great delight in all of his perennial can-kicking misdirection cresting so hilariously short of lasting and meaningful success. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that Tatum was basically the only Celtic with a pulse down the stretch Thursday night, and also that a coach complaining that his team lacks “a calming presence to slow it down and get us what we want” seems to have a pretty startling misunderstanding of what exactly he has been hired to do. Also, probably it is time for Udoka to consider diversifying the offense! Mostly I just want to watch Marcus Smart’s body language at the final buzzer over and over again until I am dead.
The fact of the matter is, whichever team lost this game was going to feel like shit. The Knicks went down big behind anemic offense and an uncharacteristically lousy performance from their reserves, and appeared headed for a disastrous blowout loss on their home floor, where they’ve been surprisingly creaky this season. The home crowd, frustrated after a half-season of underperformance, booed the Knicks Thursday night. Things are a little strained these days.
The Knicks and Celtics are both trying to reverse disappointing starts to the season and surge out of mediocrity into the Eastern Conference’s upper class, where once upon a time they thought they belonged. One game, no matter how euphoric for the winner and unbearable for the loser, is unlikely to set a new course for a couple of teams that by now have all the evidence they need to reorient themselves to life as play-in fodder. But winning is at least good for the mood. The Knicks now get to feel proud for a few days, whereas the Celtics must now endure the torments of hell.