BOSTON -- On the night he celebrated his one-year anniversary in Boston with the top scoring performance of his career, Boston Celtics swingman Jae Crowder's evening ended with him angrily pounding a seat cushion on the Boston bench after fouling out with 47 seconds left in what would be a 109-101 loss to the visiting Atlanta Hawks.
Crowder put up a career-best 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, but it was of little consolation as the Celtics fumbled away what had been a double-digit lead and allowed the Hawks to impose their will over the final five minutes of play in what Isaiah Thomas previously had termed a "must-win" game.
The Celtics dropped their fourth game in five tries and slipped to 14-13 overall. Just one week after a confidence-inspiring showdown with the Golden State Warriors, Boston now finds itself questioning where its spunk has gone.
"I don’t think we’re playing with the same type of swagger," Crowder said. "[The Hawks] started building that swagger within themselves; you started hearing them yell and talk and be excited. We don’t show any passion, any excitement any more. We have to get back to that."
And why have the Celtics lost that swagger?
"I don’t know. We’ve got to figure that out," Crowder said. "We don’t know. Playing for one another is a big part of it. We’ve got to learn how to do that and get off all of ourselves, get our swagger back, get our excitement."
Crowder and Thomas -- a tandem that combined for 53 points on 14-of-25 (56 percent) shooting, while the rest of the Celtics chipped in 48 points on 20-of-52 (38.5 percent) shooting -- vented their frustrations in a Boston locker room that was silent even before the rest of their teammates tiptoed out.
"We've got to figure it out, get our head out of our a---- and stop feeling sorry for ourselves, for whatever reason," said Thomas. "That's the problem: We're not playing with a sense of urgency and, like I said, we're out there feeling sorry for ourselves, and I don't understand why."
What exactly are Boston's issues?
"It's a mental game, I think, for us," Thomas said. "[Friday] we just had no energy, no sense of urgency. We almost led the whole game, and you wouldn't have even thought we did just because of how our energy was and how nobody was smiling, nobody was happy for whatever reason. That's taken a toll on this team, and it's got to turn around quick."
Celtics coach Brad Stevens noted his team offered little resistance as the Hawks made their late-game run, battering Boston with pick-and-rolls. The Celtics are now just 5-7 in what the NBA defines as "clutch" games -- when the score is within five points in the final five minutes of play. Atlanta, even with its own struggles after a 60-win season last year, is 12-6 in clutch games this season.
The Celtics simply haven't figured out how to consistently win close games, something it thrived at during its second-half surge to the playoffs last season. "We have some work to do," Stevens said.
What's most frustrating to Boston players is that they know they are better than what they have shown. The Celtics stood toe-to-toe with the two best teams in the league (Golden State, San Antonio) and won three clutch games against Eastern Conference playoff-caliber squads in Chicago, Charlotte and Miami over the past three weeks. But the Celtics have rarely put together 48 consistent minutes, and the lulls keep biting them in the behind.
Thomas and Crowder stressed that this is on Boston’s players to figure out.
“Coach can't always help us out on the court,” Thomas said. "I think this team always looks for Brad if things are going wrong, always looking to the bench. And a mature team doesn't need to always look at their coach.”
Friday was as disheartened as Boston's locker room has been all season. Players are frustrated, especially after overcoming such terrible first-half play to take control in the second half against the Hawks. Then the Celtics fell apart when it mattered most.
"We can’t panic, but as players we have to look in the mirror," Thomas said. "Look at ourselves first, and then go from there and figure it out ourselves. We have to bring what got us the wins this season. When we win, we play at a high level. When we lose, it’s like a totally opposite team. We have to stop that."
"We’re hanging our heads. You haven’t seen that from us," Thomas continued. "We haven’t been a group to just hang our heads when things aren’t going well, and that’s what we are doing. Collectively as a group, when things are going south, we aren’t doing well. We can’t be that type of group where we are happy and congratulating everyone when things are good. We can’t be that group. We have to be even-keeled and be consistent on all ends."