After sitting out Thursday’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers due to shoulder soreness, Irving returned Sunday to score a game-high 40 points, but the Celtics couldn’t rally out of a 19-point hole while falling to the Orlando Magic 103-95 at TD Garden.
Told that teammate Al Horford had suggested that the Celtics need to play like “we’re fighting for our lives right now,” Irving downplayed Boston’s first three-game losing streak of the season.
“You gotta hit some adversity. We have to hit something. Like, we need it as a team,” said Irving. “There’s a lot more adversity down the road, and we’ve got to be able to weather the storm no matter what.
“That’s part of the game, and learning one another and being able to figure out how do you respond from that. Us as a group, as we’ve come in the last four months or five months, it’s new. We need to hit something like this in order for us to grow. It’s part of the game. It’s part of being on a team, part of being a professional on any team, in any environment. You gotta have stuff like this where you gotta figure it out.”
Outside of losing Gordon Hayward to a fractured ankle minutes into the 2017-18 season, the Celtics have endured relatively few bumps this year. After an 0-2 start, Boston won 34 of its next 42 games, highlighted by a 16-game winning streak in which the Celtics routinely rallied from double-digit deficits.
But after another titillating come-from-behind win against the Sixers in London earlier this month, Boston returned home and dropped three straight games to the Pelicans, Sixers and Magic. Boston was one of just five teams in the NBA entering Sunday’s action that hadn’t endured a three-game losing streak this season.
The Magic, who entered Sunday’s action tied for the worst record in basketball with the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks, hadn’t won in Boston in since Feb. 7, 2010, and snapped a 14-game regular-season losing streak at TD Garden.
Given that the Celtics have trailed by 12 or more in each of their past four games, Horford wants to see more urgency.
“In my eyes, I feel like we’re fighting for our lives right now,” Horford said before Boston made a cross-country trek for the start of a four-game road trip out West. “That has to be our mindset going into Tuesday’s game [against the Lakers], and we’ll take it a game at a time, focus on Tuesday and make sure we come out with a lot of energy and that we’re able to sustain it throughout the game.”
Irving was spectacular on Sunday, connecting on 14 of his 23 attempts, including five of the seven 3-pointers he hoisted. Irving added seven rebounds and five assists over 40 minutes.
Boston’s bench, however, scored a mere eight points on 4-of-19 shooting overall. The Celtics turned up their defensive intensity in the fourth quarter but never really threatened the Magic. Much of TD Garden cleared out in the final minutes with Boston fans racing to catch the start of the AFC title game between the Patriots and Jaguars.
“We’ve just gotta play better,” said Irving. “That’s all. It’s as simple as that. I think that we’ll leave the kind of internal language for us, and we’ll go out there and execute out there on the floor.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he didn’t think his team was too reliant on Irving on Sunday and praised how the All-Star guard played in his return.
As for Boston’s three-game losing streak, Stevens noted, “I think we all have to play better.”
Echoed second-year guard Jaylen Brown: “It’s hard to pinpoint a common thread [in the losses]. We just have to play better. We haven’t been playing to our level.”