If you play with fire long enough, you’re going to get burned. It’s one of life’s oldest lessons, and yet it’s never fully learned.
I know it. You know it. The Celtics know it.
“We gotta regroup,” Jayson Tatum said after the overtime loss in Charlotte. “We won six or seven games in a row, and it may be easy to get complacent, things like that. We paid for it tonight.”
They had this coming. The basketball gods might take Sunday nights off but they never sit out two games in a row. A night after the Celtics should have lost in Memphis, their self-sabotage was fully realized in Charlotte.
“You have to take something from each game,” Joe Mazzulla said. “This was our first overtime game, it’s the first time we blew a lead, and we have to go back and understand why we did it. And it comes from taking plays off and not finishing possessions.”
At least these guys are being honest with themselves.
Nights like this can be complicated because they both mean nothing and mean a lot at the same time. In the short term, it’s not the biggest deal in the world. Boston was on a back-to-back and mired in a little bit of a stretch where they were getting away with not playing their best basketball. Charlotte is not a good team, but they have a bona fide star in LaMelo Ball, and they have enough pride that facing Boston is a chance to prove something.
“If you want to look at every year, the teams that end up with the worst records beat the teams with the best records,” said Hornets head coach Steve Clifford. “That’s the way the league is. They're all such good players that the difference in teams is night-to-night. It’s not one night, it’s can you put games together.”
Boston is a team that puts games together, as evidenced by their six-game winning streak heading into this game. The Celtics' 11 wins have come in two chunks of six and five wins. The Hornets are a night-to-night team picking off wins here and there that snap losing streaks. But on any given night, their collection of basketball talent can do some good things.
Even a bad NBA team is still one of the best basketball teams in the world.
So I’m not sitting here rage-typing while froth-mouthed expletives dot my computer screen with spittle. If anything, my trapezius muscles are getting a nice workout from all the shrugging I’m doing.
Yet, at the same time, my crow’s feet are getting a bit more defined by the squinting I’m doing at Boston’s continued foibles.
This is where games like this can mean everything, because championship habits are built around the holidays. The DNA of an NBA team is being solidified while we’re busy shopping and eating. Each mid-autumn to early-winter pound we gain coincides with season-defining habits becoming muscle-memory for players.
By the time January rolls around, we end up having something in common with NBA players. Neither of us are going to shed the results of our bad decisions without a whole lot of hard work, and chances are none of us really has time for any of that.
The best thing to do is be better now.
“They’re a hard team to guard in the half court, so it’s those little details throughout the game, they test you,” Mazzulla said. “We’ve been good in those through the first ten, and we’ve let those slip as far as the margins go.”
Good teams put games together. Great teams put weeks together. They put months together. They're not perfect, but they don’t wallow in their own crapulence. We can excuse away one bad loss, but they’ve played three straight bad games. They’ve just gotten away with two of those performances.
They face Milwaukee on Wednesday night, so we can probably expect their best back home. The question of whether they’ve actually learned a lesson won’t be answered against the Bucks. But that Orlando, Atlanta, Chicago stretch might be a bit more informative.
I’m already on record as believing this team has championship potential. Their record shows I’m probably on to something. But they shouldn’t believe in what I believe.
If they do, then they’ll be the same old frustrating bunch that they’ve been over the past few seasons. They will turn playing down to the competition into an art form.
What they should believe is that the minutiae is important. They should understand that overlooking the smallest details has burned them in the past. They should believe that a loss like this is actually a reminder to be great in the dullest moments, because those are the moments where the best habits are learned.
Discipline is hard. Very few people have it every day of their lives, and honestly, those few who do are boring.
So it’s fine to slip. It’s okay to blow a lead to the Hornets and have a crappy plane ride back home.
Just don’t make a habit of it.