In the midst of a season littered with player turnover, Jae Crowder has served as one of the strongest voices in a young Celtics locker room after being acquired from the Dallas Mavericks.
On Wednesday night, Crowder’s voice spoke loud and clear following a disheartening 93-87 setback to the shorthanded Miami Heat at the TD Garden.
"[It’s] sickening, sickening, man. That loss hurts. I don't know what to say about it. We didn't show up,” Crowder said.
For the past two months, showing up has not been an issue for Brad Stevens’ Celtics. While the roster has dealt with constant trades, injuries, and talented opponents, the team’s effort has regularly risen to the occasions, as they have admirably fought to become relevant once again in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.
A win over the Heat would have gone a long way in strengthening the team’s odds of making the postseason. Boston entered Wednesday night trailing Miami by just one game for the seventh seed in the standings with just 12 games remaining. The head-to-head tiebreaker between the two squads was at stake as well.
The Celtics seemingly had a laundry list of things to play for, and the team’s position only improved with the news that Dwyane Wade (knee), Hassan Whiteside (hand), and Chris Andersen (calf) would miss the matchup for Miami. Meanwhile, Boston’s leading scorer Isaiah Thomas would be returning to action after an eight-game absence.
Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity, the Celtics came out with a listless performance for the opening three quarters. 13 first-half turnovers turned into 15 easy points for Miami. Former Celtic Henry Walker and his Heat teammates saw countless open looks from beyond the arc, as the Boston defense routinely broke down against the dribble penetration of Goran Dragic (22 points, seven assists). 50-50 balls routinely went Miami’s way. Thomas was ineffective (four points in 20 minutes), and his teammates weren’t much better.
The visitors built a 22-point second half lead, which proved to be a deficit from which Boston’s second unit was not able to recover in the fourth quarter, despite an admirable comeback attempt.
Brad Stevens put the blame on himself for the unacceptable performance.
“For the first two and a half quarters, I didn’t think we played, and that’s the frustrating part,” Stevens said. “I told the guys in there, that’s got to be on the coach if that team’s not good on that night, first and foremost. So if it happens again we’ll make whatever changes we need to make.”
The letdown came just three days after the Celtics let a winnable game slip away against the Detroit Pistons at home, which left the locker room searching for answers.
“To be honest, I don’t know [why we started slow],” Marcus Smart admitted after the Heat loss. “That’s something we have to fix as a team, as a group. If we don’t fix that and figure that out quick, we’re going to have some problems.”
Crowder attempted to echo the demand for accountability that Gerald Wallace asked for following Sunday night’s loss.
“You can’t come out lackadaisical, they’re missing guys, you can’t come out without a sense of urgency,” Crowder said. “We didn’t have that. They had a sense of urgency. They blew a lead last night and they were trying to come in here and fight for one tonight.”
Crowder added: "Everything comes into play. Us being at home, [we’re] playing for something in front of our home crowd and don't show up for three quarters. I don't understand it."
While the Celtics may not understand the reasons for their lapses, they are running out of time to figure out a solution. The team remains tied with the Indiana Pacers for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference with 11 games remaining, but their margin for error is razor thin with nine of their final games coming against teams competing for playoff spots or positioning.
The health of Thomas remains also remains a question mark going forward. His bruised back appeared to limit his quickness and shooting ability, turning him into a net negative (plus/minus of -18) for the contest. The point guard admitted he probably would not be able to return to 100 percent health this season, which poses a serious challenge for this group.
Without Thomas at his best, the rest of Boston’s roster must step up in the midst of the season’s home stretch. Otherwise, the team will be watching the postseason from afar in late-April.
"We've just got to know what's at stake as a unit," Crowder said. "Each game right now, we're playing for something. I mean, if that don't motivate you to come out and be prepared and be ready to go, I don't know what will fire you to do that. We're playing for something, that's all I've got to say. If you love this game and you love to play for something, you'll strap them up and be ready to play."