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Celtics' embarrassing loss to Thunder highlights need for change

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The exasperated look on assistant coach Damon Stoudamire’s face told the story of the Boston Celtics.

After offering little resistance against a Thunder team without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and giving up a season-high 74 first-half points in Oklahoma City, the Boston coaching staff pleaded with the players at halftime to better protect the ball and prevent Thunder’s insatiable desire to direct. .

Then, on the very first play of the second half, Jalen Wiliams leapt to the edge for a 1-2 layup. Stoudamire shook his head and rubbed his temples. The Celtics clearly weren’t going to change their effort level tonight.

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Thus, the Thunder maintained a 48-minute lay-up line. Boston conceded 150 points for the first time since 1979. It was an embarrassing effort by a team that too often wants things to be easy.

Celtics players admitted they slowed down with the news that Gilgeous-Alexander would not suit up. But despite being beaten by a young Thunder team in mid-November in Boston, the Celtics still appeared as if expecting a sleepwalking victory.

A familiar pattern emerged: the Celtics missed open 3-pointers, got frustrated, and folded. When the Thunder weren’t blasting through perimeter defenders to facilitate layups, they simply outscored the Celtics for second-chance points.

Late in the second quarter, the Celtics were clashing trying to defend single pick-and-rolls.

The Celtics were trailing by 28 points when Marcus Smart won his second coach and was kicked out of his near-comeback. Celtics interim head coach Joe Mazzulla put Smart in a bear hug to avoid further escalation with the officials.

It was the only defense Boston played all night.

The Celtics exuded confidence at the start of the year, when they apparently couldn’t miss beyond the arc. They spoke of an insatiable desire to get back to the championship stage as they mounted a historic attack.

But when the going gets tough, this team has struggled to respond. Sometimes they look like a child eager to hit the reset button on their XBox when games start badly.

So what happens next?

Jaylen Brown suggested that the Celtics should have seen this beating coming. After Sunday’s loss to Denver, he hinted that the team wasn’t as focused as it needed to be coming out of the New Year’s party the night before. If only there was a holiday to blame for Tuesday’s pathetic showing.

Strange things happen during the January doldrums, but rarely is a true championship contender burned for 150 points by an improved G-League squad. The question is, are the Celtics willing to consistently strive to be an elite team, or will they continue to pick and choose their spots?

The Celtics need more of everyone. Mazzulla remained poised in his post-game commentary but has to emphasize behind closed doors that Tuesday’s effort is unacceptable. Jayson Tatum and Brown have carried a heavy load of late, but they need to be at the forefront to stabilize this ship in rocky waters.

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Not to beat a dead horse, but it sure looks like there’s an easy opening here to put Robert Williams III back in an early role. Nothing will boost Boston’s defense more than infusing the energy of Williams III. Perhaps this isn’t ideal as they manage their playing time in the infancy of their return, but Boston can more easily set a defensive tone when Williams III is with this group.

Boston also needs at least some of its actors to snap out of a month-long funk. A group that wanted to be known as the best second unit in the league has withered since that trip to Golden State. How ironic, given Boston’s desire to show its newfound depth that night in San Francisco. The slight drop in point production isn’t too concerning, but the efficiency of this group is.

Here’s a look at Boston’s bench production over the team’s first 26 games (league ranking) versus everything since the Golden State game:

Celtics bench stats 2022-23

NBC Sports Boston

The Celtics’ bench shooting has plummeted in their last 12 games.

The drop in RPG 3-point shooting is particularly shocking. Boston had a group of reserve players among the best 3-point shooters in the NBA going into that Golden State game.

A look at the cliff they fell over the last 12 games:

2022-23 Celtics 3-point shot

NBC Sports Boston

Every Celtics bench player has seen his 3-point shot drop in the last 12 games.

But the bottom line is that Boston simply needs to play more urgently. This team needs to figure out what their identity will be and build on it.

Are they going to be an elite offense with a defense that isn’t quite the juggernaut of last season, but is capable of stalling in key moments? Will they lean heavily on last year’s defense mentality, even if it leaves less energy to spend on the offensive end?

The Celtics have all the talent and potential. They just have nights where they don’t fully enjoy it. But you can’t just turn it on and off. Championship teams bring this up so often that you can dismiss the rare blips.

Boston has to prove that Tuesday night’s effort was an outlier. But here’s the harsh reality: As of Dec. 2, Boston is 8-8 with an underwhelming net rating of +0.7. In that one-month period, the Celtics offense ranks 28th. The defense ranks fourth over that period, but there are nights like Tuesday where the intensity is impossibly lacking.

The rest of the East is on Boston’s heels. Brooklyn has won 12 straight to move in half a game. The Bucks, Cavaliers and 76ers are on the prowl.

Boston has to decide who it wants to be, strive to be that team, and change its inconsistent ways from last month.