On Friday evening, Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens spent much of his pre-game press conference reiterating his commitment to the team and making it clear that he was not leaving to take the Indiana University job. When he sat back down to talk to reporters a few hours later, the mood was not so jovial.
After battling back from a 15-point deficit to briefly take the lead in the fourth quarter, the Celtics fell apart down the stretch and lost to the Sacramento Kings, 107-96. This was their third straight loss, and fourth in five games since the All-Star break. As a result, they're now back under .500 at 20-21, and clinging to the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference.
Stevens, unsurprisingly, was not pleased with the result, or the recent trend. He said he believes in his group, but wants them to be more resilient and engaged with each other.
"I think we need to be more engaged in each other," Stevens said. "I think that teams are fragile things, guys are trying — and they're all really good guys... I can't say enough good things about [the players]. That's why I believe it's there. That's why I think our ceiling's better than we played -- because I believe in who we have. But we've gotta do it together. That's the bottom line."
"Fun often follows winning," Stevens continued. "But what comes first: Winning or doing hard stuff?"
This has been a difficult and disjointed season for the Celtics, who have been shorthanded pretty much the entire way. The constant shuffling of rotations and roles has undoubtedly made it difficult to find and maintain a rhythm, and that's been obvious in their play and the results.
But the external factors don't completely excuse some of their struggles. There's a ton of high-end talent on this team -- Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown made them one of only six teams with multiple All-Stars -- and Stevens noted that their ceiling is still quite high. Unfortunately, the floor is also pretty low.
Some of that is on the players and coaching staff to figure out. We've already seen Stevens' quotes, and the players had their say after the game as well. "I haven't done a good job of leading this team," Brown said. "I lose sleep because of that." Kemba Walker added, "At the end of the day, we've gotta come together, man. ... People gotta sacrifice certain things. We've gotta put our pride to the side and figure it out."
There's also an onus on president Danny Ainge to make some adjustments at the trade deadline on March 25. Some of his peripheral moves over the past few years have not worked out, and as a result the Celtics' supporting cast is inconsistent and ill-suited to compliment the stars' best skills. They have a massive trade exception via the Gordon Hayward saga, and adding an additional scoring and shooting threat on the wing would go a long way towards solving some of the Celtics' woes.
If Ainge can make something happen in the trade market, or the players currently in the locker room adjust and figure things out internally, perhaps the Celtics could still make some noise in the East. But if they stay on their current trajectory, it's hard to see that happening.