DALLAS — With these Celtics, despite their resurgence after the injury to Rajon Rondo, bad habits, lethargy, and poor execution are contagious.
While continuing to deny their putrid loss to the New Orleans Hornets had aftereffects, they were disinterested until late in the fourth quarter Friday night at American Airlines Center.
Of course, the Celtics paid for such disposition.
The Mavericks, clinging to playoff hopes, took advantage of every Celtic mistake — and there were plenty — and never trailed in a 104-94 decision. The Celtics were uncharacteristically distracted on defense, allowing constant streaks to the basket from Brandan Wright, the former NBA lottery bust who has settled in Dallas.
Wright’s performance exemplified the evening for the Celtics. He finished with a season-high 23 points on 11-for-16 shooting and none of his attempts were outside 8 feet. He glided to the basket for dunks, streaked on pick-and-rolls, and found offensive rebounds for putbacks.
And when the Celtics desperately need a stop in the waning moments, Courtney Lee sprained his ankle in a collision, leaving O.J. Mayo open for the cinching 3-pointer.
Wright dominated the paint and Vince Carter jumped into his Toronto time machine and added 19 points in 27 minutes.
The Celtics lamented their defensive breakdowns. The moment they would put together consecutive baskets, Shawn Marion (11 points, 13 rebounds) would score a layup or Wright would be left open at the rim.
“We were trying to get something going, just could never seem to put it all together, to be honest,” said Kevin Garnett (16 points, 12 rebounds). “We missed assignments. They would get easy baskets. We would take the major priority away and the secondaries were scoring, one of those nights man.
“There were a lot of breakdowns, man. A lot of uncharacteristic breakdowns in the game plan. Things that we normally do defensive. For some reason we were slipping tonight. I don’t know what it was. It just happens.”
Jason Terry was given a standing ovation in his first game back in Dallas after eight years with the Mavericks, but that return was overshadowed. He scored 8 points on 3-for-9 shooting after promising a momentous return.
The Celtics’ bench offered no relief, combining for 12 of 32 shooting and eight turnovers. Jeff Green was needed to produce one of his strong offensive performances, but scored 10 points with 5 fouls and 5 turnovers.
Jordan Crawford showed no hesitation in shooting (11 shots in 16 minutes) but converted three and missed a couple of 3-pointers that would have made things interesting.
It was the Celtics third consecutive loss and one they deserved. The Celtics shot 41.6 percent, committed 14 turnovers and were pounded on the boards (48-38). Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Brandon Bass all had 16 points as the Celtics played mostly even in the final three quarters — but that wasn’t sufficient.
“We missed a lot of shots,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “All through the game. Listen, I don’t mind that, you want them to make them. I just thought we got lost a lot tonight on defense. We gave up a 30-point [first] quarter, which we don’t do. If you take that away, who knows how the game goes.’’
Trailing by 11 at halftime, the Celtics spent the third quarter trading baskets with the Mavericks, who maintained their double-digit lead until Terry and Bass scored consecutive baskets to slice the deficit to 71-63 at the 3:30 mark. But seemingly each time the Celtics attempted to make it respectable, they would respond with defensive breakdowns.
Carter went retro with a one-handed hammer dunk that began an 8-2 run to stretch the Dallas lead to 79-65. Again, the Celtics would chip away as the Mavericks were nothing close to flawless, but they did have an offensive answer each time, including back-to-back baskets by Darren Collison for an 87-77 lead with 7:46 left.
There was one more flurry left as Pierce returned from a long layup to spark a 11-4 surge, but the defense faltered again, and Mayo could have determined the wind shift before taking that decisive 3-pointer.
Although Rivers maintained the Celtics had rid themselves of the disappointment generated from the 87-86 loss in New Orleans on Wednesday, they walked into American Airlines Center flat, fighting their own ineptitude for the entire first half.
They quickly fell behind, 11-4, and spent the rest of the game chasing their equally aged — just better executing — opponent. What plagued the Celtics was their inability to stop the pick-and-roll and the slight (but athletic) Wright was the beneficiary. He scored 12 points on 6-for-10 shooting in the first half as the Mavericks led 55-44 at the break.
When the Mavericks began the second quarter cold from the field, the Celtics were unable to capitalize because they missed countless layups. In one sequence, Bass missed two layups and was called for offensive goaltending trying to put back the third.
“We were attacking, we were being aggressive,” Pierce said. “Some night they fall and some nights they don’t. The one thing we can control is our effort on the defensive end.”