BOSTON -- It would probably be easier for Brad Stevens if the Boston Celtics were getting their doors blown off every night. But they are not. These Celtics, despite their eyesore record, have often made things entertaining until the final horn, but have followed a familiar script in being unable to win close games.
On Sunday night, the Celtics endured loss No. 50 of the 2013-14 campaign, dropping a 107-102 decision to the Chicago Bulls. Stevens, who admitted sleep didn’t come easy after a narrow loss in Toronto two days earlier, was asked as he arrived for his postgame press conference if he takes any solace at all in keeping games close.
“Nope. Zero,” he answered.
No matter how much he prepared himself for losing, the bitter taste of defeat will never be easy for Stevens to accept. While maintaining his veil of calmness, he expressed frustration at being unable to pull out victories, but balanced it with a sanguine suggestion that both he and the team are improving despite the losses.
It’s a fascinating thing. For most Celtics fans, these losses roll right off them. Opening Day for the defending World Series champion Red Sox arrives Monday afternoon in Baltimore and there’s one more excuse to ignore the local hoopsters beyond a casual glance at the final score.
Oh the Celtics lost again? Excellent, more ping-pong balls.
If only it were that easy for Stevens. No, these losses gnaw at him and he’s likely stressed his computer battery rewatching the final minutes of recent games and wondering what he could have done differently to help his team pull out a victory.
The Celtics have lost four straight and nine of their last 10. They are a half-game ahead of Utah for the fourth-worst record in basketball. There are nine games left in the regular season and a loss Monday in Chicago combined with an Atlanta or New York win will formally eliminate Boston from postseason contention, not that even the most optimistic Celtics fan had any other delusion.
But Stevens still sees the potential for progress these final two weeks, a chance to take another step in his team’s development and lay a stronger foundation for next season. And it starts with finding ways to make plays late in games and emerge with victories.
Asked if he was more frustrated after Sunday’s loss than usual, Stevens shook his head and noted how every loss gnaws at him.
“I’ve been pretty frustrated,” he said. “But it is what it is. And the one thing I’ve got to do, I’ve got to set the tone for us, do my job as hard as I can. So that’s what I’m going to do. And our guys are going to continue to do that. And, again, that’s why I keep bringing it up. It’s not easy to be the team that’s 23 and whatever we are (50). But the real mettle comes out at those times too. And who you are comes out at those times. So I want to make sure I do my best to lead by example. I am frustrated by the loss and more frustrated by how we played in those [late-game] moments.”
Inside the Celtics locker room, captain Rajon Rondo leaned on the power of short-term memory. He playfully said he couldn’t remember anything about Boston’s 58-loss campaign during his rookie season of 2007. (He did throw in a playful jab when he noted, “I just remember I didn’t play a lot.”) Rondo said he preferred to look at the following year when the team morphed into a champion.
This season? He’s frustrated, but not letting it eat at him -- at least not on the outside.
“It’s a little deja vu,” Rondo said of being unable to win close games. “I’m not discouraged at all. You can look at it a couple different ways. We hate losing, but we have to find a way eventually to win some of these games. They are very winnable, we’re just not closing the games the right way.”
Across the room, Jared Sullinger was asked about Stevens’ frustrations.
“If he’s down, you’ve got to understand, he’s coming from Butler, where he wins a lot and he comes here and there’s games that kind of slip through our hands,” Sullinger said. “He’s learning. We’re all learning around here. I can understand his frustration.”
Added Sullinger: “The transition is tough. You’ve just got to learn to let games go and understand that tomorrow, you have another day to fight and you’re just going to continue to fight and that’s what warriors do.”
Stevens doesn’t want his team to be OK with losing. It’s one thing to move past losses, but he wants his players to understand the goal is to keep fighting and find a way to win games like the one that slipped away on Sunday with D.J. Augustin popping off the Chicago bench to score a career-high 33 points.
“I just talked about it in the locker room -- we can sugar-coat it, we can say, ‘It’s nice to be close,' and we have all year -- but at the end of the day, it is what it is from a record standpoint,” Stevens said. “And a lot of people in this position won’t react well to that, and that’s not OK.”
Stevens was asked if he was running out of things to say to motivate his players.
“I’m not the most vocal guy, but I won’t run out of things to say,” Stevens said. “The last two games have defined where we are. There’s no hiding from that. It is what it is. The reality is we’re a team that isn’t, by record, very good. A lot of people in our situation would not handle that the right way and our task is to handle that the right way, be professional about it and bring our best every day. I think we played hard, but I’m frustrated with the end result.”
At the tail end of his nine-minute confab with reporters, Stevens was asked if losing has affected him more than he expected. He allowed himself to glance at the big picture.
“Maybe from the outside looking in, maybe someone would say that,” Stevens said. “Here’s what I think: I’m getting a lot better at this, our team is going to get a lot better because of this. And that’s hard to process when you’re in the midst of it. I’ve had a great coach tell me that the toughest times are the ones that help you and make you better, and I believe that. But it’s hard to think that right now."