Celtics notebook: Boston lacks mental toughness late in games

It has been a frustrating season for Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics, who fell to 18-21 with a 108-105 loss to the Knicks on Thursday night. Adam Hunger/Associated Press

The Celtics have some soul-searching to do. Every time they look like they’ve turned a corner, reality smacks them in the face. Boston dropped to 18-21 with the trade deadline just weeks away.

That means decision time for Brad Stevens and the rest of the front office. Gone are the days where the Celtics made the Eastern Conference finals consistently. And that’s part of what Jayson Tatum reflected on after the 108-105 buzzer-beating loss to the Knicks on Thursday.

“We just have to look at the big picture and the grand scheme of things and look back to those years when we was going to the conference finals and make you really appreciate those moments,” Tatum said. “Because it’s hard, it’s not easy. I think early on, probably my rookie year, I thought that was just normal.”

The Celtics are far from being legitimate title contenders. They’re sitting in lottery position with better chances at the No. 1 pick than the No. 1 seed. The reasons and issues are plentiful as the Celtics can’t close games, their shooting is subpar and the roster doesn’t fit in a cohesive manner.

That’s life for Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who are running the show for the Celtics. They’ve been part of those deep playoff runs, but they weren’t the headliners then. Now, they’re learning what life is like when the losses pile up and much of the criticism falls on their shoulders.

“We just have to harp on and keep reiterating that whatever was working when we were getting the lead in the first half or whatever, just to not shy away from it,” Tatum said. “Keep doing the things that got us to that point and don’t get bored with the details and the little things.”

The Celtics seemingly can’t finish close games. They’re just 2-11 in games decided by five points or fewer. There’s some statistical noise there, but that’s a clear execution issue.

Boston Coach Ime Udoka hasn’t been able to point out what’s wrong. He did say the Celtics lack mental toughness as they’ve collapsed in tight games all season.

“It’s not open gym, you can’t just play the same way the whole game,” Udoka said of the close losses. “So we have to have better understanding of that and get the quality of shot that we want to stop a run and not just get caught up in it and four, five guys make the wrong play and it starts to snowball.”

EVAN FOURNIER barely spent any time in Boston when he was a Celtic last season. After being moved from the Magic to the Celtics at the trade deadline, he was supposed to be an off-the-bench sixth man that could give the Celtics some scoring juice. But the stint was short-lived as Boston didn’t re-sign him during free agency.

It’s been a season of mostly downs for Fournier with the Knicks – except when he plays the Celtics. He poured in a career-high 41 points in the victory Thursday, including a sizzling 10 for 14 on 3-pointers. In three games against Boston this season, Fournier is averaging 35 points a game and making 54.1% of his 3-point attempts.

The regular-season averages are completely different: 13.5 points per game and 38.1% on 3-pointers. But Fournier enjoys lighting up his old team, even if he only played 16 games in Boston.

WHILE THE LOSSES have piled up, the Celtics haven’t had any new additions to the injury report in the past two games. At the very minimum, that’s a positive as the Celticss can finally see what their full roster can do.
The early returns aren’t great; the two losses have come with Boston at relatively full strength. The lineups have arguably been questionable from Udoka, but he’s working with a flawed roster.

The Celtics still have their next three games against teams under the .500 mark: the Knicks on Saturday, then two contests against the Pacers. But those aren’t gimme games – especially because the Celtics are a sub-.500 team themselves.

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