‘We’ve got to learn how to win again’: Can Celtics overcome familiar problems and right the ship?

"We just have a choice to make: What team do we want to be?"

Celtics forward Jayson Tatum reacts in disbelief after his last second basket was waved off. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

On Wednesday, for maybe the first time in their previously historic 2022-23 season, the Celtics were booed at TD Garden as they fell behind by as many as 30 points in the first half against the Pacers. 

TD Garden crowds, of course, aren’t afraid to boo, but they’ve been much more genial than usual this season as the Celtics stormed to the league’s best record.

Recent events, however, seem to have sapped fans of their patience. Robert Williams helped a bit — his cutting slam right before halftime trimmed the lead to 28 and blunted the displeasure as the team walked to the locker room. But the Celtics put together an unacceptable 24 minutes to help the Pacers build a 71-43 advantage. The fans knew it. They knew it. 


“We got booed, you never want to do that,” Tatum said after the game. “Rightfully so.”

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In the locker room, coach Joe Mazzulla delivered a message: The Celtics need to figure out for themselves what kind of team they want to be. The message appeared to be well-received. In the second half, they looked a lot more like themselves — rallying back to lose by five points.

“We just have a choice to make: what team do we want to be?” Mazzulla said afterward. “The team we were in the first half or the second half?”

Which, great. Good for the Celtics for taking Wednesday’s game and turning it into a quiet continuation of their slump instead of a blaring three-alarm fire headline splattered across ESPN and NBA.com.

Mazzulla’s comment is interesting — presumably, he meant that the Celtics need to decide whether they want to be the team they were in the first half or in the second half on Wednesday. They also need to decide whether they want to be the team they were in the first or second half of last year — the squad that started 23-24 and allowed discussions of breaking up Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to sweep across the league, or the team that stormed through the second half of the regular season and reached the NBA Finals. 


The good news for the Celtics is that this is probably just a slump, and slumps end. As we wrote on Wednesday, there are plenty of reasons to believe the Celtics are regressing to the mean after their white-hot start rather than plummeting to the 5-seed.

“I think us, as a team, we’re disappointed in ourselves, but I don’t think there’s concern,” Malcolm Brogdon said. “I think we need a sense of urgency, and I think we’re starting to get that.”

If the Celtics snap themselves out of their skid now and level out, they will be in great shape going forward. They remain the No. 2 seed, just half a game behind the Bucks (and half a game ahead of the Cavaliers, who increasingly look like a genuine threat to come out of the East). They have the NBA’s best net rating, per Cleaning the Glass (which filters garbage time out). They still have time to rectify mistakes, and they still have a killer two-way lineup featuring a ton of shooting, scoring, and versatile defense. 

But a couple of concerning trends have emerged. For instance, when the Celtics go cold, they go really cold. In their 22 wins so far, the Celtics have shot 41.2 percent from 3-point range. In their 10 losses, the Celtics are shooting 30.9 percent from deep. Part of the issue is that five of their 10 losses have coincided with their recent regression, which may be skewing the numbers, but they shot poorly against Cleveland in their loss on Nov. 2 (as well as on Nov. 4, their lone win against the Bulls). They also made just 15 of their 45 3-pointers in their loss to the Heat on Dec. 2 which — in an unquantifiable way — seems to have been the start of their slide. 


Against the Pacers, the Celtics generated a lot of solid shots as they slouched their way to a 3-for-15 first half from deep — or at least, shots that fell for them earlier this year. Brown’s first field-goal attempt was a quick 3-pointer but an open one. Al Horford missed an open spot-up 3. Tatum missed a 3 curling off a screen. Derrick White created a nice look for Payton Pritchard, which he missed. Grant Williams bricked a completely unguarded triple from above the break. Brogdon front-rimmed a deep but open 3-pointer. With the exception of a highly contested step-back by Brown, every one of the Celtics’ 3-point attempts in the first quarter was a solid look, and they went 1-for-8 as the Pacers built a 20-point lead. 

The misses are part of a team-wide trend. Over the last 10 games, only Grant Williams (42.1 percent) and Brogdon (38.1 percent) are shooting above 34 percent from deep. During their five-of-six-game skid, Brogdon leads the team at just 34.4 percent from behind the arc. Horford (33.3), Tatum (32.6), Marcus Smart (31.4), Williams (30.4), Brown (29.8), Hauser (26.1), and Derrick White (a brutal 15.0 percent) all trail in his less-than-impressive wake.

One thing is clear: The Celtics need to make 3-pointers to win games. This shooting slump won’t continue, but one can’t help but wonder how the Celtics will react if their 3-point shot deserts them in the playoffs. Their offense is predicated on ball movement, 3-point shooting, and the greatness of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but can the ball movement and the Jays (combined with the defense) pick the Celtics up if 3-pointers aren’t falling? 


The Celtics have more than enough time to answer questions like that. But if teams know that limiting the Celtics at the 3-point line is all you need to do to beat them, the playoffs could be a tough challenge.

“We’ve got to learn how to win again,” Tatum said on Wednesday. “I think it’s not as simple as that, but we’ve got to get back to having fun. I think we’re playing a little timid, a little tight. Basketball is supposed to be fun.”

Tatum’s right, and the Celtics will probably figure out how to get back to having fun — after all, they’ve done it before. But if they want to avoid an ugly spectacle in the near future — such as, for example, getting booed during a national TV Christmas Day game against the Bucks — they need to sort through their issues quickly.


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