Aside from one unsightly half in Oklahoma City and 48 embarrassing minutes in Denver, the Boston Celtics’ effort has been remarkably consistent this season. Even during their current eight-game losing streak, the Celtics have seldom slacked off, no matter how lopsided the scores got.
Effort and execution are far different qualities, however, and one can’t succeed without the other. For the second straight night, the Celtics played hard but not smart, leading to a 112-104 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens and his players nodded their respect for the Blazers (28-9), who kept pace with the Oklahoma City Thunder atop the Northwest Division with the victory. LaMarcus Aldridge‘s crew was worthy of their respect, for sure. Aldridge finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds in another strong performance en route to an All-Star berth, and Wesley Matthews continued his Most Improved Player award bid with 18 points and his typical, reliable defense.
“They did what they do,” Stevens said. “Their offense is just outstanding.”
But Portland didn’t win merely because it was good. It also won because the Celtics (13-25), when it counted, weren’t good. They weren’t lazy. They tried. They just didn’t try hard enough to make good passes, set good screens or generate good shots that might have delivered them a victory. They were careless.
Nothing made that more apparent than the Celtics’ last three meaningful offensive possessions.
On possession No. 1, with less than two minutes left in the game, the Celtics got the ball while trailing by six points after a turnover by Portland guard Damian Lillard. A 3-pointer could have make it a one-possession game but wasn’t necessary. There was plenty of time to keep chipping away with a two and maybe settle for a quality three if available. But the Celtics settled for three looks from beyond the arc — two by Jordan Crawford, one by Jeff Green — and missed them all.
Following a pair of free throws by Robin Lopez, the Celtics were down by eight points with 1:11 remaining — not an eternity, but not time for desperation, either. Naturally, Jared Sullinger took a three. Avery Bradley gobbled the offensive rebound, had his layup attempt blocked, then missed a long 2-pointer that was useless at that point. Green got another offensive rebound, and the officials almost reluctantly gave him a trip to the foul line, where he hit both free throws to narrow the gap to four.
Finally, with 40 seconds remaining, the Celtics got yet another chance. The referees determined upon review that Lillard had lost the ball out of bounds on a drive, which set up the Celtics for another chance to make it a one-possession game.
For a good 15 seconds, the ball bounced around from player to player. Kris Humphries held it for far too long at the top of the key. Green almost turned it over numerous times. Eventually, the ball got to Crawford, who dove into the teeth of Portland’s defense and missed a wild layup with a ton of contact. Crawford wanted a foul and he probably had a case, but the refs weren’t about to reward such a shoddy possession with a couple of free throws. And that was pretty much game over.
Despite how an 0-5 road trip looks on paper, this wasn’t a fruitless expedition for the Celtics. They clearly improved over the last three games and would have beaten many of the Eastern Conference’s mid-tier or lesser teams with these sorts of performances. Avery Bradley parried Lillard, an All-Star in the making, with 25 points, and Humphries nearly tallied another double-double with 10 points and eight rebounds, again justifying Stevens’ decision to use him in the starting lineup.
Meanwhile, Sullinger, who was struggling when the Celtics departed Boston last weekend, scored 14 points and 10 rebounds as he continued to find his groove. The Celtics committed just nine turnovers against the Blazers and managed to match one of the NBA’s best offensive and defensive rebounding teams on the offensive glass, 20-20.
There were plenty of silver linings, but that actually might be the bad news for the Celtics. Because only one type of team takes silver linings from a winless road trip — and it’s not the type of team that wins.
At least that’s over with.
The Celtics don’t have to play another Western Conference team on the road until Feb. 19, when they visit the Phoenix Suns after the All-Star break. More than a month without a West road game might be the best news the Celtics have gotten in weeks.
Saturday’s loss makes the Celtics 0-9 this season against West opponents on the road. The West is better than the East, as everyone knows, and the Celtics faced the cream of the crop in the past week. Still, nothing quite sums up the disparity between the two conferences like that stat.
Solely against East competition, the Celtics are 10-12 for a .454 winning percentage, easily in the playoff hunt. Against the West, they are 3-13. If the Celtics end up with a high lottery pick, thank the Western Conference for all its assistance.