BOSTON — The NBA is (almost) scripted.
It’s a soap opera, a business that thrives off drama. The Boston Celtics played on TNT on Thursday night. They know drama. They say it during every commercial break.
So as the Celtics walked into the Garden to face the Los Angeles Lakers, knowing LeBron James and Anthony Davis were sitting out, they thought they already knew how this episode would play out. Plucky group of reserves hits some shots, plays some defense, and the Celtics have to rally together and play with all their hearts to pull out the win in the end.
But then Austin Reaves slid a rewrite under their door just ahead of tipoff. This wasn’t going to be their night.
“Me and Jrue (Holiday) pregame looked at each other like, ‘Phew, it’s going to be a tough one,’” Kristaps Porziņģis said. “We know these kinds of games are tough. It can go smooth at the beginning for a team like us. But it can be a tough night and tonight was one of those nights that was a tough night.”
Even as Porziņģis controlled the paint, the Lakers hit seemingly every shot from deep and forced every turnover they could get their hands on. Boston never went more than a couple of possessions on offense with any purpose.
A good plot needs adversity, something over which to triumph. The Celtics season wouldn’t be interesting without a comeback story, even if this team has been ahead of the pack from day one.
JB jam got Jrue bouncin ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/SJBB4Jn5nD
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) February 2, 2024
It’s nights like this that create the suspense and tension that make the NBA a must-watch drama.
“This is the NBA. This is almost like a script. You’re going to lose this type of game and fans are going to think it’s the end of the world, and we lost to the Lakers without AD and LeBron,” Porziņģis said after the Lakers beat the Celtics 114-105. “Like, end of the season. Boom. Done. But it’s just a loss. It’s just a loss, which we have to learn from and which we will.”
The Celtics are officially playing a bad stretch of basketball. Their coach declared it Saturday after foreshadowing it throughout the past few weeks. Following 20 straight home wins to open the year, they’ve lost three games at the Garden in the past two weeks. Nothing is going according to script anymore.
Nobody is enjoying this plot twist more than Joe Mazzulla.
The coach was pissed somewhere deep inside after his team lost to the Lakers, but he’s able to let that anger go easily and compartmentalize his frustration. You couldn’t see it when he walked to the podium after the loss. That’s what you have to do in his position. He took some extra time before his arrival to joke with people out in the hallway and then entered the room hyped up, yelling, “Welcome to the NBA!”
“Oh, it’s great. It’s good,” Mazzulla said of the loss. “Stretches of bad basketball happen. You work your butt off every day to minimize those, but stretches of bad basketball happen, and we can’t sit here and act like we’re too entitled for it to happen to us. It happens. It’s a matter of how we respond to it, and can we work through it.”
That’s the tough part. It’s not that his players don’t want to listen. It’s that the message doesn’t always translate into practice. There were several mentions of bad habits Thursday night. That’s the big thing they’ve been pushing away all year when things get easy.
Mazzulla joked around about not quite listening to every single thing he is told at home, trying to laugh off the reality that things aren’t going nearly as well for his team as the first two months of the season. January was a slog and February got off to a brutal start.
He tries to tell his players what to do and what to avoid. Most of the time they listen. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work. Against the Lakers, pretty much none of it worked.
“Do you know how many things I tell them that still happen? That’s like, coaching. All the time,” Mazzulla said with a wry smile. “Do you have kids?”
The good news is these players don’t need convincing that something is off. While they have plenty of cushion in the standings, they don’t have a buffer from their standards. Once they start letting go of their best habits, they hit the sharp edges of their rock bottom quickly.
“I’m very frustrated. Tonight was a rough night. We take full responsibility for it,” Jaylen Brown said. “It started with that first group, we weren’t very good tonight. We came out lackadaisical and this is the NBA, you come out with that mentality and you lose and that’s what we did. We lost.”
Brown couldn’t score, but he did have seven assists. Jayson Tatum hit some shots, but the Lakers swallowed up his drives throughout the night. It was a rare game where both of the Jays were just out of sync, a bit of a callback to the days when they couldn’t come through every night and the Celtics would roll over to an opponent playing connected.
“I’m certain everybody in this room wishes they could go back and change some s— they did when they was younger,” Jayson Tatum said. “But we didn’t play well enough to win and they did, so we have to give them credit.”
Brown, Porziņģis and Holiday felt it more than anybody. Just three minutes into the second half, Mazzulla pulled them.
“We deserved it,” Porziņģis said. “Of course we were pissed off. We’re pissed off at ourselves and I completely understood. I never want to come out of the game, but I completely understood we had to change something.”
That’s a dramatic move. It’s not just getting one guy off the floor. It’s taking out a whole lineup, telling the second unit he trusts them more to get the team out of its slump than the stars. Brown was just named an All-Star a few hours earlier.
“Every day is a new day. But definitely, I guess it’s the first time I feel like all season we have an experience like this,” Brown said. “And you don’t wanna see that too often.”
But Mazzulla wasn’t dwelling on that frustration. That’s not really his personality. The beauty of the regular season, and the deluge of rest days they have ahead of them after a packed January schedule, is that the ebbs and flows give plenty of leeway to ride the wave.
What’s helped this team remain more steady than in years past is the new talent brought in. Holiday is the paragon of basketball stoicism. Porziņģis is simply a cool guy. Just ask Brown. So it was no surprise that Porziņģis emulated his coach’s perspective.
“I think this saying, this quote, always works for me, ‘You win or you learn,’” Porziņģis said. “You learn more from your losses 100 percent. If you win, a lot of times it covers some of the stuff. But a loss like tonight and even a tough game like Indiana — and of course we try to always look at each other, look at ourselves in the mirror like, ‘OK, even if we won, what are the things we need to clean up? What do we need to do better?’ But it still doesn’t hit the same as when you actually get a loss.”
Then there is the other side of the coin.
“We don’t sugarcoat it. We can all come out and say we’re excited, but this is not a good spot to be in,” Brown said. “We don’t wanna deal with bad habits. We wanna play the game the right way. We wanna guard, defend, respect our opponents and that stuff you gotta do on a night in and night out basis. We didn’t do that tonight from top to bottom. As a leader on this team, I take responsibility for it, but we gotta do better.”
Now there are two days off, a game against a flailing Memphis team, then another two days off. This is a moment of reflection. A hard reset in the middle of what so far has been a dream season.
“To think we’re not going to go through difficult times during an 82-game NBA season is not the right way to look at it,” Mazzulla said. “So am I pissed about losing? Yes. But am I ecstatic about the opportunity for us to grow as a team? I’m even happier about that.”
Time to turn the page on the script of their season. They have a chance to leave the adversity behind them. But it’ll always be just around the corner if they can’t learn from it.
(Photo of Jaylen Brown and Jrue Holiday: David Butler II / USA Today)