BOSTON — Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics has taken the same approach after just about every loss this season. He has said the team needs adversity and embraced every step of the learning process. He has declared his team needs to be “unwavering” (that’s one of his favorite words) no matter what happens.

But after the Celtics dropped their third straight game Wednesday night, a 129-119 stinker against the Los Angeles Clippers, Irving showed a state of urgency he had not previously unveiled in Boston. In an obviously pained mood, he suggested his team needs to regain its attitude and effort, admitted he has noticed the competition taking shape, and sounded almost obsessed with figuring out his team’s recent slippage.

“As you can tell by my mood, I’m not even thinking about All-Star break,” Irving said. After a long pause, he continued, “I can’t even think about All-Star or anything. I’m just – I’m thinking about so many things right now, just from a standpoint of how to be better. Because I know what’s coming.”

What’s coming? The playoff push, and, Irving hopes, a long postseason run. But that doesn’t seem as likely as a month ago. As the Celtics dropped four of their last five games, the Toronto Raptors continued playing inspired basketball and the Cleveland Cavaliers reconfigured themselves with a stunning trade-deadline flurry. If the current standings hold, the Celtics will run into a rejuvenated LeBron James in the second round.

And the Celtics don’t look ready for a prime-time matchup. They were cracked by both the Raptors and Cavaliers over the last week. They were outclassed at home by the Indiana Pacers when a frantic comeback fell short. And they were saved by a late Markieff Morris foul against the John Wall-less Washington Wizards. If Morris had not sent Irving to the line for three freebies at the end of regulation, the Celtics could be entering the break with a five-game losing skid. And if Al Horford hadn’t drilled a buzzer-beater before that to sink the Portland Trail Blazers on Super Bowl Sunday, the bad streak could be at six games.

Sure, the what-if game can be a dangerous one. But since Jan. 1, the Celtics own the 28th-ranked offense. Lately, even the defense has suffered, giving up season-worst point totals in back-to-back games.


“I’ve said all along I don’t think we’re all that we were cracked up to be during our 16-game winning streak,” said Coach Brad Stevens. “And it’s probably hit us more in the last month than it hit us before. Teams have outplayed us. Good teams have outplayed us and that was the case again tonight. Couldn’t get a stop at any point in time during the game.”

The Celtics didn’t stop DeAndre Jordan from catching a steady diet of lobs, couldn’t keep Danilo Gallinari off the foul line and allowed Lou Williams to break free for 16 fourth-quarter points. After taking a four-point lead with 10 minutes left, Boston immediately surrendered a 10-0 run and let the Clippers shred them the rest of the way.

Explaining why he turned to a Hack-a-Jordan strategy late, Stevens said, “By the end of the game I was fouling him because we couldn’t get a stop.”

In other words, Stevens lost faith in his top-ranked defense.

“I think the theme here is our defense needs to be better,” said All-Star big man Al Horford. “We’re a group that we’ve built what we have so far on the defensive end, and we’ve taken a big step back on that. It’s obvious in the past few games.”

Both before and after the game, Stevens suggested lineup changes could be coming. While talking about his team’s troubling habit of missing open shots, he said improvement can come from internal development, increased comfort or “by changing your rotations.”


Stevens will use the break to explore new combinations.

“It’s going to be a tough ending if we don’t change a little bit and I’ll look at what I can change as well. I think we’re probably due for some of that,” he said. “We’ll look at everything. Obviously, you’re always looking for small tweaks defensively and offensively, but we haven’t gotten enough out of our rotations and subs, and all those things. We’ll take a deeper dive into that.”

Recently the Celtics have missed speed and ballhandling without the injured Marcus Smart and Shane Larkin. Over the last four games, Stevens also has tinkered with a big man rotation that now features three useful centers in Aron Baynes, Daniel Theis and Greg Monroe in addition to Horford.

Whatever Stevens decides, Irving stressed the Celtics need to regain their hard edge.

“Going into All-Star break, I’m thinking about what’s happening after,” he said. “How we respond, and what we’re doing after, and where our focus is and where we are mentally.

“This is not really a break for me. This is like the stakes are at their highest. Teams are starting to sneak into their playoff positions and teams are starting to shape into what they’re going to be going into the playoffs. And that’s where my focus is.

“Teams are raising their level. I have to figure out a way to get this group to another gear. Other teams are starting to get their gears. It’s about that time.”

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