When Boston won a season-high four consecutive games in late December, some wondered out loud if the Celtics might be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. Ten days later, it's clear the Bulls have submitted their claim to that title, while TNT's Charles Barkley opined at halftime that the Celtics are "a 6-7-8 seed, at the most."
It's hard to argue with Barkley's assessment. The Celtics endured yet another game in which their offense disappeared in the second half, allowing an opponent to race away. Boston led by double digits in the early going but found itself down one by halftime. The Celtics then shot 30.4 percent in the second half -- falling into the familiar trap of settling for long jumpers rather than attacking the basket as they did in building the early lead -- and with go-to scorer Isaiah Thomas (5-of-17 shooting, 14 points) struggling with his shot, the Celtics never made a sustained charge.
Amid all the gloom about Boston's recent play, the absence of coach Brad Stevens provided some perspective. Stevens left the Celtics on Thursday morning to travel to his native Indiana to visit with former Butler center Andrew Smith, whom the Indianapolis Star reported was hospitalized again during his battle with cancer.
Smith's father, Curt, appeared to reference Stevens' visit on Twitter on Thursday when he wrote, "Coach -- thanks for visiting Andrew and the family today. Means the world to the big guy, [Smith's wife] Sam, and us all. Truly a blessing."
Via social media, Smith's family made a unified request for prayers. His wife, Samantha, wrote, "We need a miracle." Smith was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in January 2014 and his wife recently noted that Smith was now battling leukemia.
When the Celtics were in Indiana in early November, Stevens and video coordinator Alex Barlow -- another of Stevens' former players at Butler -- had dinner with Smith before he underwent a bone-marrow transplant.
That Stevens left the Celtics on Thursday continues a trend in which the organization prioritizes family over basketball. In recent seasons, the Celtics have allowed players such as Perry Jones and Marcus Smart to leave the team to tend to personal matters. Further back, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge would often accompany Jeff Green on visits to the Cleveland Clinic where the player underwent career-threatening heart surgery for an aortic aneurysm.
The Celtics have worked tirelessly to build a roster of high-character players, guys who love basketball but also approach the game the right way. The team's leadership, from ownership down, has maintained a strong belief that there are moments that transcend the game of basketball and family matters are prioritized regardless of how the team is playing.
Talking about Stevens' decision to leave the team to visit with Smith, Celtics guard Evan Turner told reporters in Chicago, "I think that speaks volumes in general. ... I'm blown away [by the decision]. I'm lucky to play for him. That says a lot. It says a lot about his character and obviously it puts him in a higher stature than I already had him."
Stevens will soon be back at work, obsessing over Boston's rotations and scrutinizing the team's offensive struggles. The Celtics believe they are a better team than they've shown recently and yearn to get back on track. Ainge has pledged to examine ways to turn quantity into quality as the February trade deadline approaches and the Celtics hope to improve their roster for another second-half surge to the playoffs.
For one night, basketball was not the priority. Thursday reminded us that these are just games. There are moments that are bigger than the game of basketball. Stevens made the right decision to leave the team. Basketball will be waiting when he's ready to return, and trying to fix what's happening on the court might be a good diversion to what he can't fix away from it.