Celtics searching for answers as slide continues

BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics woke up on Feb. 29 feeling great about the state of their season. They sat tied in the loss column with the Toronto Raptors for second place in the Eastern Conference, and they had won 14 of their past 17 games.

Now, just nine days later, things feel exceedingly different.

Boston has lost four straight at TD Garden, dropping Sunday's game 105-104 against the Oklahoma City Thunder after a costly Kemba Walker turnover in the final seconds led to Dennis Schroder's game-winning layup. Their hopes of landing that second seed have rapidly faded, and the path to the kind of deep playoff run the Celtics were hoping for is looking exceedingly tougher as a result.

"This is part of navigating your way through this stuff," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "You can feel like you're on top of the world one week, and you can feel like the sky is falling the next.

"That's the hardest part about the NBA ... that's just the way it goes."

The way it's going now for the Celtics is that they can't do anything right here at home. In those four losses -- to the Houston Rockets, Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz and the Thunder -- the Celtics held a double-digit lead in each that they let slip away, including the three biggest leads (21 points against Brooklyn, 18 against Oklahoma City and 17 against Houston) that they let get away all season.

So rather than maintain the pace they had set over the prior several weeks, which had launched them into a head-to-head race with Toronto for that coveted second seed in the East, the Celtics instead find themselves closer to the Miami Heat in fourth (two losses ahead) than the Raptors in second (three losses behind).

"We obviously have stuff to work on," said Gordon Hayward, who returned from a right knee contusion that had sidelined him for the prior two games and led the Celtics with 25 points. "I think as individuals, as a team, we have to try to not get too high on the highs or too low on the lows, and this is a low for us.

"We have to try to build ourselves, crawl ourselves back out of it. I think we'll find it again. We're still the same team. We've just got to lift each other up, find ways to win basketball games again."

It had appeared Boston had managed to do just that when, after a rough sequence that saw Jayson Tatum and Walker both blow layups and Marcus Smart lose the ball on a drive for one on three straight possessions, Hayward made a beautiful pass to Daniel Theis for a dunk, followed by Tatum blocking a Dennis Schroder shot to kick-start a fast break that culminated in a Tatum layup to give Boston a 104-103 lead.

But after Thunder center Steven Adams missed two foul shots and, after getting the offensive rebound, Chris Paul missed a potential go-ahead bucket, the Celtics had the ball out of bounds with a chance to ice the game at the free throw line.

However, that would have required the Celtics to get there. After Smart inbounded the ball to Walker, he got caught in a world-class trap by Paul and Schroder, who stole the ball and laid it in to put Oklahoma City back in front with 8.5 seconds to go.

Tatum would go on to miss a potential game-winning turnaround jumper at the other end, and the Celtics found themselves on the short end at home yet again.

"Obviously, I turned the ball over, so I was just a little upset about that," said Walker, who sat for a long time at his locker after the game with his head down and his hands clasped together, clearly disappointed in how he had played.

Walker, who is still shaking off rust from the five games he sat out immediately after the All-Star break due to left knee soreness, struggled again Sunday, finishing 4-for-14 from the field for 14 points in 30 minutes, and said his subpar play since returning (he's 15-for-47 in the three games he has played) is weighing on him.

"I think I'm getting some pretty good looks," he said. "They just aren't going down. I'm going to keep working towards it and get better. I'll be there for my teammates ... it's only my third game back.

"It's tough for me, because I know I can make those shots that I'm taking. At the moment, it's not falling, but this is not the first time I've had a stretch like this in my career when I haven't been playing so well. But I'll be better."

Given the Celtics now head on the road to face the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday and the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday, they'll need him to be. The same goes for Tatum, who has followed up his supernova month of February with a pair of duds against Utah and Oklahoma City, going a combined 15-for-41 from the field in those games and getting to the free throw line a combined five times between them.

"We just have to move on," Tatum said. "We can't hang our heads on this past week. We've just gotta get ready for the next one."

A common theme has cropped up in these games: The Celtics have struggled when opponents have gotten physical with them -- something that was especially true against both the Rockets and Thunder, teams that have stout, sturdy perimeter defenders who gave Boston fits.

Overcoming physical defenders is something that the Celtics will have to do to make a deep playoff run -- particularly if, as they would if the season ended Monday morning, the Celtics open the playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that has already won three of the four meetings between the two during the regular season.

Right now, though, the Celtics will settle for just getting back on track after a truly disastrous nine days have fundamentally changed the course of their season.

"We have to figure out ways to win basketball games again," Hayward said.