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Enough blame game, Celtics need to show urgency on the court

A frustrated Brad Stevens on Tuesday reiterated that he thinks the Celtics' problems start with him. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

WALTHAM, Mass. -- The Boston Celtics gathered Tuesday morning for a full-squad practice that wasn't previously planned, one that became a necessity after the team's pathetic effort during Monday's loss to the Charlotte Hornets.

The Celtics were scheduled to fly to New York on Tuesday in advance of the start of a three-game road trip on Wednesday night in Brooklyn. The team typically would have gathered and gone through some light individual off-day work. But the team’s lackluster performance Monday required a reminder of the sort of effort that is expected on a nightly basis.

Maybe Celtics players should feel fortunate that coach Brad Stevens didn't ask the team to simply run to Brooklyn (we picture Stevens calmly driving a golf cart down the shoulder of Interstate-95 while panting players in winter gear jog behind him) and instead simply elected to make them sweat a bit before the flight.

Stevens reaffirmed Tuesday his belief that Monday's loss was on him for not having his team ready to match the hustle and intensity that Charlotte played with. Unfortunately for his players, the only way to correct that misstep was a focused practice.

Meeting with reporters before Tuesday's closed session, Stevens wouldn't tip his hand on the practice plan, but said simply, "Just a couple of drills in practice that will be a little different.”

Let's hope the Celtics brought their running shoes.

Stevens said review of Monday's game film only led him to similar conclusions that he offered in the immediate aftermath some 12 hours earlier.

"We just got out-hustled, got outplayed," he said. "Not an acceptable thing for any of us and that starts with me. I definitely have been looking at it introspectively from the moment I left the gym."

Told that some of his players, most notably Jeff Green before Tuesday's session, had suggested the blame lied on them and not the coach, Stevens dismissed the notion.

"[Our effort has] been good most of the year, but [Monday] night it’s on me," Stevens said. "They are wrong. I just thought the other team looked faster, had more purpose toward the ball. I really appreciate the fact that those guys would say that, but a coach's job is to have your team put their best foot forward. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win every game, it doesn’t mean you’re going to play perfectly, it doesn’t mean you’re going to do every little thing right, but our best foot wasn’t put forward and that is a coach’s first-and-foremost responsibility."

But what can a coach do to make his team play better?

"I just have to get them ready better," Stevens said. "Hopefully [Monday's game] was more of an anomaly than not. But that’s what happened. We all saw it. There’s no question about that. It was pretty evident to see. Charlotte outplayed us. And they really played so purposefully from the moment they walked on the court."

More from Stevens: "I think we are all responsible for [playing with purpose]. But ultimately, that’s what I’ve got to do, I’ve got to do a better job of that. If that means that we have to change some things, then we have to change some things. If it means that we have to change some ways that we are approaching things, then we have to do that. If it’s personnel changes in certain moments, we have to do that. We’ve all talked about the rotations and our evenness and it’s not getting any more separated, let’s put it that way, especially after last night."

The Celtics watched Charlotte dominate the first six minutes of Monday's game, building a double-digit lead that snowballed as high as 22 before Boston finally found a working combination -- one that featured rookies Marcus Smart and James Young playing alongside Jae Crowder, Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger -- that rallied the team back into the game in the fourth quarter.

But many of the team's key players had disappeared. Tyler Zeller couldn't match his brother Cody's impact; Avery Bradley struggled with his shot; Evan Turner couldn't maintain his recent strong play; and Green, who had a couple of strong driving layups in the early moments of the game, faded just as fast.

Green, who has struggled maybe more than anyone since the departure of Rajon Rondo, tried to fall on the sword.

"It starts with me," he said before Tuesday's practice. "I would blame myself for the way we've come out and played. As a leader, you have to lead by example, and I don’t think I've been doing a great job of that, so you can put the blame on me if you want."

How can the Celtics change what happened on Monday?

"We've just got to play harder," Green said. "Simple as that. Teams are outplaying us."

But how does a team that's 10 games under .500 and yet still has a chance to compete for a playoff spot in a terrible Eastern Conference allow that to happen, particularly against a team that sat behind them in the standings?

"Well, I mean, when you’re playing so many games, you're not going to be up for every game," Green said. "It's tough, and I think lately, with the way we've been playing, I think we've been down on ourselves. So I think the effort, we just have to pick up. I think our offense is going to come. We're going to have games where we don’t shoot the ball well, but I think we let our offense dictate our defense. I think we just need to play with effort, starting with myself, and continue to play off that instead of playing off shots that we try to make."

It's great that the Celtics, especially ones in leadership spots, are trying to take some of the blame for Monday’s letdown (and similar recent performances).

But there's only one way to prove you actually mean what you say: Show it on the court. Until then, it's just talk. If the Celtics come out flat in Brooklyn, then maybe this team simply doesn't get it and bigger changes are needed.

Changes are probably coming, regardless, before the February trade deadline. That's a necessity with an overcrowded roster that's becoming more log-jammed by the minute, particularly after Young's potential breakout night on Monday.

Veterans Jameer Nelson (ankle) and Marcus Thornton (calf) both dressed for practice Tuesday and have expressed a desire to get back on the court. Stevens soon will have the unenviable task of dividing 240 total minutes between 15 players that all want 30-plus apiece.

That's not going to happen. And poor Stevens is left shouldering the blame for his team's performances despite the fact that few players have stepped forward and suggested they deserve a sizable chunk of those minutes.

Stevens was asked how often this season his team has been out-hustled this season. Was it maybe five games?

"Higher than that," he said. "Unfortunately."

Stevens admitted his team's lack of effort was bothersome. He referenced a belief that NBA teams have eight games per season in which they play well below their potential, eight games where they play well above their potential, and the other 66 reflect exactly what a team is.

The Celtics are almost at their quota for what they hope is well-below-their-potential games. If it exceeds that number, then maybe they are simply not as good as they believe they can be.

Stevens is frustrated. He's trying to get his team on track and doing everything he can to figure out what drives them, all while taking the blame for Monday's eyesore in order to take some heat off of a group of players that deserves the criticism.

Wednesday's game will tell us a lot about Boston's resolve and what kind of team this is. They don't necessarily have to win, but they have to play with more urgency, more hustle and more desire.

More importantly, they have to find a way to do that every night. We've talked about margin for error and this team doesn't have one. The Celtics have to play to their potential or beyond to simply have a chance to win games.

Otherwise, what happened Monday will happen a lot more often. And that's not acceptable to Stevens.