Celtics fall to Kings for third straight loss

They are, minus Gordon Hayward, now the so-called Core Four, and prior to Friday’s game against Sacramento, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker had started two games together this season.

That’s why Brad Stevens was hopeful.

“There’s things that you add as the season goes on and there’s things that you haven’t added because we haven’t had our guys all full all together,” said the Celtics coach. “I usually don’t talk about starting lineups but this is the first time that we’re going to start those four guys together, other than the San Antonio and LA games all year. I think, as far as roles and all that, I think we are fairly well-defined. But I still think there’s room for movement, right? We’re not good enough to be completely well-defined. If we do the exact same thing every day and we’re 20-20, it’s not good enough, we gotta find some solutions.”

After their 107-96 loss to Sacramento on Friday night — the Celtics’ third straight, dropping them under .500 to 20-21 — the search continues. Uninspired defense and cold shooting — intertwined for this team — once again ruled the day except for an inspired third quarter comeback. Smart vowed earlier in the day to find a way — but that, too, is part of the unknown.

Though Brad Stevens is always in the mood for self-improvement, this latest loss by his team has the Celtics coach questioning himself.

“My biggest thing is this: We have a certain ceiling to us if we’re not completely engaged in each other. We have to play well to win. If we’re not playing well, it’s not going to end well,” said the Celtics coach. “ You have to be so engaged to win an NBA game that when you’re not, you don’t. And so we’re not, and that’s what we have to fix.

“The changes, the lineup changes, the starting lineup, whatever, it’s got to be 17 guys dying to play well together and I think the fun follows that. You share it,” said Stevens. “You dive on the floor, you rebound, you’re tough every single play. When something doesn’t go your way, you tip the cap to the guy. Like Hield’s shot where he pulled up right in front of our bench, tip your cap and move on. We need more of that, bottom line.

“And you know what, it’s fair to say that’s on me. It’s fair to say that’s something I need to make sure we have, and I’m going to do my best — whether it’s finding different groups, or whether it’s getting the most out of the group that I know has the highest potential, then that’s what we’re going to do.”

If Harrison Barnes is indeed Danny Ainge’s desired trade target, the Kings forward certainly passed his latest audition with 15 points and 13 rebounds. But so did DeAaron Fox (29 points), Richaun Holmes (25 and 11) and Buddy Hield (23). Such is the current state of Celtics coverage, known at the moment for making opponents comfortable.

Holmes’ improbable 3-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer — the Kings big man banked it from the top of the circle —  was good for a 95-91 lead with 3:32 left. Rob Williams came out of a timeout with a put-back, but Fox hit another open jumper.

The Celtics were doomed to this end. They shot 6-for-21 (2-for-10 from 3) in the fourth. Instead it was Holmes making the big plays, including consecutive blocks of Tatum and Brown in the last two minutes, to go along with that colossal 3-pointer. It was Fox, with 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting in that stretch.

Down the other end Tatum missed all four of his fourth quarter shots. Brown was 1-for-4. Kemba Walker, the only Celtic showing life at that stage, had eight of his 16 points in the fourth.

The pressure to even make the playoffs appears to have come to bear on this team.

“It shouldn’t be. I think like when adversity hits, when you get put in situations where you’re uncomfortable in life or on the basketball court, that’s the time you see what you’re made of,” said Brown. “And as a group in the fourth quarter, we’ve fallen apart a lot of times. Lot of games that we were in and things like that that we could’ve won, we didn’t for whatever reason mentally or physically or however you want to draw it up. Fourth quarter is supposed to be winning time and it’s been a time that we haven’t been absolutely together.”

Stevens said he needs to see his players connecting more with each other. Brown said he needs to be a better leader. Walker said he may have lapsed in another way — by allowing his normally upbeat nature to drain away.

“I think the best I could do is really just be my upbeat self. I really haven’t been that,” said the Celtics point guard, “I don’t think, over the last couple of games, and that’s on me. Guys look to me. I can’t have nights like that where I’m just not myself. So yeah, moving forward, I’ve just got to be better individually as far as my personality. I’ve got to be there at all times. And it shows whenever I’m not on beat, whenever I’m not bringing that energy, we’re just a whole different team.”

That’s the thing, said Walker. The team itself couldn’t be much tighter.

“The reason guys are all pointing on themselves is because we have such great dudes. We’re very high character,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ll find many teammates who really put the blame on themselves, especially on one team. So I really do appreciate my teammates and respect my teammates further for that. At the end of the day, we got to come together man. If we want to win and we want to be successful it’s only one possible way that can happen and that’s for us to do it together. Some people gotta sacrifice certain things. No, we got to put our pride to the side and figure it out.”

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