DENVER — The jury is probably still out on the Celtics, but these guys have people more important and harder to convince: Themselves.
The evidence from Wednesday night’s overtime loss to the Clippers made their case in strong terms. Oh, there will still be much deliberation and more exhibits to be entered, but the 107-104 loss in Los Angeles has the C’s a little more persuaded that what they’re doing now could be enough to get them playoff success — a huge leap from the way the NBA is played in the Opening 82.
Make no mistake, however. The Celtics screwed things up royally Monday. They kissed away a 10-point fourth-quarter lead, and their decisions on offense often left a lot to be desired.
But here, too, they were able to find encouragement.
Said Marcus Smart as he walked down the Staples Center hallway to exit the building late Wednesday, “These are some things we can’t do. But these are things we can fix.”
Smart earlier had said the game had a playoff-type atmosphere, and, for certain, this was more like how the game will be played in the spring. The Clippers, finally at full-star strength with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the floor together for the first time, engaged the Celts in a punch-counterpunch exercise.
Doc Rivers’ crew came in averaging 112.8 points a game and was held to 97 through 48 minutes. And the Clips didn’t overlook the Celts. With their stars aligned, the hosts were focused on making a little statement of their own. With the West-leading Lakers sharing the town, they don’t even have to dial long distance to have their say.
But while the Clippers earned themselves a gritty win, the Celtics believe they told themselves something, as well.
“Yeah, for sure,” Jaylen Brown told the Herald from a quiet visitors’ dressing room. “I don’t think we played to our best ability, and we still had every chance to win this game. So I think we hold our heads high going forward and watch the film and just try to learn and get better from it. They made some big plays. Patrick Beverley played big for them. But we still feel good about ourselves that we could have won the game.”
Perhaps most impressive is that the Celts didn’t get deflated on defense when they were bricking 17 of their 18 3-point attempts in the first half. They stayed the defensive course, when NBA nature is generally to do the opposite.
“It was a hard-fought game, and I think we played them well, even overtime,” said Brown. “Giving up 107 points, that’s great defense. We’ve just got to find ways to close. We didn’t get stops when we needed them, big rebounds that we’ve got to come up with. But I’m happy with how we played. We had some guys really step up. We’ve just got to finish games.
“That’s what we try to do is hang our hat on the defensive side, and I think we did really well defensively. We made some big plays. Marcus made some big plays defensively. It’s just a tough one. It just didn’t go our way.”
And, to be fair, the Celtics are still finding their way with this new group. So far, so good.
“Absolutely,” said Brown. “I believe in this team. I think we lost two games that we could have won (on the trip — Sacramento and the Clippers), but I think we’re going to learn from it. I’m going to learn from it, definitely make adjustments and keep moving forward.”
Smart was even more convinced that Wednesday’s loss improved the Celtics’ case.
“Of course it does,” he said. “This is who we are. We can see that now. We’ve just got to continue to keep fighting. We’ve just got to clean up things.”
He agreed that it’s a bit odd that a loss may have spoken better about his team than the 11 wins that preceded it.
“We don’t want to have to keep losing to say a lot,” said Smart, “but this game definitely says a lot about us.”
Both good and bad. But at least the bad seemed correctable against a team like the Clippers that isn’t particularly large inside. That will still be a hurdle for the Celts, but it’s one they feel better about dealing with as they head into a major challenge Friday in Denver.
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Jayson Tatum is seeking to set his bar higher, and Wednesday was a move in that direction. The third-year wing went for 30 points, often matched up against Leonard or George.
That meant something to him.
“Yeah,” Tatum said, “especially if you’re somebody like me. I’ve always looked up to Kawhi and PG, especially PG. That was one of my favorite players. This is the opportunity you look for, especially the bright lights, big stage. You don’t want to back down. You want to compete and show them that you belong out here and just earn their respect. And I love competing against those guys.
“Besides KD (Kevin Durant), those are the two best small forwards in the league. I look up to a lot of guys, especially those two, at my position. Those are two great examples of where I’m trying to get to. When I play against them, just try to compete.”
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Tatum sent the L.A. game to overtime with a 3-pointer in the latter seconds of regulation, and Smart gave the Celts a chance to tie at the end of OT with a colossal steal in which he tipped the ball away and saved it from going out of bounds by throwing it off Leonard’s leg as the Celt was falling out of bounds.
Kemba Walker was duly impressed.
“Oh, those guys are tough, man,” he said. “It’s no surprise to me. These guys work hard and they play hard and they want to win. JT made some huge shots and some big plays. That’s what he is. That’s who he is for us. We trust him. We want him to develop into that leader, that leadership role. You know, it’s about that time he takes that step. He’s been showing that. He’s been hitting big shot after big shot for us. Smart, he’s a leader, as well. He’s a tough dude. You know, we’ve just got to keep going.”
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