BOSTON — The best way to describe Rajon Rondo and Brad Stevens’ demeanors late Friday night was this: They boiled.
After a dispiriting 111-102 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers that marked a new low point in the Boston Celtics’ season, the team’s captain and coach, respectively, demonstrated an outward calm while clearly simmering underneath. That much was clear after Stevens took twice as long as usual before appearing to address reporters after the game.
“He ripped us a little bit more than usual,” Rondo admitted. “But we deserved it.”
The Celtics weren’t good Friday, which is different from not playing well. Not playing well is a temporary state that can be brushed off and moved forward from relatively easily, given the right attitude. By contrast, for two hours and 22 minutes Friday, the Celtics were an awful basketball team. That’s a harder reality from which to move forward.
Stevens, as usual, hedged his criticism of the team by circling it back onto himself.
“We’re not pulling in one direction right now,” Stevens said. “That’s got to be the responsibility of the head coach.”
But Stevens didn’t need to call out anybody publicly. They did enough of that on their own.
Jared Sullinger: “They outplayed us. They played harder than us.”
Kelly Olynyk: “They scored more points than we did. We didn’t play very hard.”
Rondo: “We didn’t come in planning to give a performance like we did (Friday).”
That’s a lot of people acknowledging they didn’t play very hard as a team. How hard is that to hear for a player like Rondo, who wants to win everything from a preseason game to Connect Four?
“It’s not hard when it’s the truth,” Rondo said. “This is not the first time we’ve said this, either.”
Before Wednesday’s game against the Washington Wizards, Stevens had been remarkably complimentary of his team’s effort. He wasn’t merely paying lip service, either, despite their record. For most of the season, the Celtics have been a unified, hard-working group that just didn’t have the talent or experience to win many games.
Something has changed in the past two games. The Celtics suddenly look like a team that realizes this is all close to being over, that a season headed nowhere is nearing its end, that it’s time to turn the focus to summer vacations and offseason workouts. They seem to have grasped the fact that fans consider Friday’s defeat to be a “good loss,” since it provides greater lottery odds in the draft. The notion seems to have crept into their minds that they have nothing left for which to play.
“We have everything to play for,” Rondo said. “We have pride. We have pride as a team, Celtic pride. Right now, we’re not displaying that at all.”
For a handful of players, how they play in the next two weeks will be the final impression they leave in Boston. So far, they have given fans reason to admire their effort, if not the results. Unless something changes soon, they will end up with not even that.