Recent regression frustrates Celtics

There were still 13 seconds left on the clock when Boston Celtics veteran big man Kris Humphries stood up from the bench, slammed his towel on the baseline in frustration, and started for the locker room while the Phoenix Suns punctuated an 87-80 triumph on Friday night at TD Garden.

The always composed Brad Stevens took the podium for his postgame news conference soon after and appeared as frustrated as he's been in a loss-filled season.

The goal for the Celtics at this stage of the season is progress; Friday was regression.

In the grand scheme of things, it's just another loss -- of which the Celtics have 44 this season -- and keeps Boston among the pack of teams jockeying for lottery position at the bottom of the league standings.

The actions of Humphries and Stevens remind us that these guys are still competitors. The Celtics could lose their final 19 games in a row and most fans would celebrate the potential draft advantage it would produce. But neither Humphries nor Stevens is wired to accept losing. Both are smart enough to understand the situation the Celtics are in this season, but both have often stressed that doesn't make defeats any easier to stomach.

Before month's end, it's likely that Stevens will have matched his regular-season loss total from six seasons at the helm of Butler, where he posted a 166-49 record. No matter how much he braced himself for nights like Friday, it will never roll off his back.

In a way, the reactions of Humphries and Stevens were maybe the most encouraging aspect of Friday's loss. What took place on the court certainly left nothing to celebrate. Boston missed 65 shots while shooting 30.9 percent from the floor (29 of 94 overall) and completely fell apart in the final minute of a winnable game.

Humphries was left to replay in his mind a key late sequence when he was forced to switch onto Eric Bledsoe when Chris Johnson couldn't fight over a screen. Bledsoe missed a late-clock jumper over Humphries, but Alex Len had position on a fronting Johnson and tipped in the miss -- while being fouled -- as the Suns broke the game's final tie and went on to score the final seven points of the night.

After Markieff Morris emerged with a 50/50 ball and streaked the other way for a dunk, Humphries had seen enough.

"[Humphries is] upset because we lost, and he certainly has got a right to be," said Stevens. "That was not a good ending. It was not a good performance. I thought we shot probably worse shots than we've shot for a while. We missed 65 shots. That's pretty incredible that we had a chance to win, but that's not good and we need to make sure that we don't do that again."

Earlier, Stevens had noted, "We didn't play with any poise. That was probably the biggest thing."

OK, so it wasn't Gerald Wallace unloading on the Celtics as he did at times early in the season, but Stevens' comments were as bold as we've heard from him this season. And the message is clear: He will not tolerate the Celtics cruising to the finish line (of games or the season as a whole).

Humphries' night only got better when he got randomly flagged for NBA drug testing after the game. He didn't get to his locker until nearly 45 minutes after the final buzzer and he was no less disappointed by that point.

"It's tough. You don't want to lose a game like that," said Humphries.

Asked later about the frustration from mounting losses, he said, "I think, like anything in life, you want to work hard and have success. Same thing here."

Humphries has often been asked about enduring this transition season. He knew what likely lay ahead when he arrived in Boston as part of the Nets blockbuster in July, but he refused to accept it.

"We're going to try to win and that's what we do," Humphries said earlier this month after a loss. "We're not focused on the last loss. If you accept losing, you become a loser and it's hard to come to your job. We're just trying to win the next game."

The Celtics have 16 games remaining in the 2013-14 season. They are in a three-way tie for the fourth-worst record in basketball and, to most casual observers, the most important thing the rest of the way is staying near the basement of the standings.

But Stevens wants progress and wins. The Celtics departed Saturday on a brief two-game road trip with stops in New Orleans and Dallas. It is Boston's last chance to produce a road victory over a Western Conference opponent this season. The Celtics are 0-13 to this point and are at risk of being shut out this season.

A visit from the defending champs looms Wednesday when the Celtics return home to host the Miami Heat. The team treks to Brooklyn Friday to see some old playoff-bound friends. That's two games that will remind the Celtics of where this team used to be and where it desires to be again.

Every game is a chance to take a step forward, and put the losses further behind.

Asked after Friday's game about his team playing better at times recently and if that was any sort of silver lining to losses like this, Stevens criticized his team's effort and execution and added, "I like to win."