BOSTON – In Friday night’s loss against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics failed to finish. The team squandered several opportunities to win in the game’s closing minutes, capped by Rajon Rondo’s inability to attempt a potential game-winning shot as time expired.
That script did not change Monday night. Jared Sullinger (18 points) and Jeff Green (game-high 28 points) both delivered clutch baskets in the closing stages of the fourth quarter, helping Celtics fight off a 14-point second half deficit and take a two-point lead against the Phoenix Suns with just under a minute remaining.
Then, like clockwork, the Celtics crumbled down the stretch yet again. The visitors closed out the game with a 6-0 run, helping them escape the TD Garden with a 118-114 win over the Celtics, as nearly everything that could have gone wrong for the hosts did in the game’s closing minutes.
The final seconds of the loss may actually be best watched with some circus music serving as the background music for Celtics fans. First, Suns’ guard Goran Dragic broke free on a cut to the tie the game on an easy layup. Avery Bradley gave the Suns the lead on Boston’s next possession by throwing a cross court pass that would make youth coaches cringe. Eric Bledsoe intercepted it with ease and went the other way for another uncontested layup.
The Suns added to their lead with some free throws after Green missed a wide open three-pointer, leading to the game’s painful closing act in which the Celtics failed to attempt a shot for nearly 20 seconds, despite trailing by four points. Rondo finally got fouled on a three-point attempt with two seconds remaining, but misfired on three freebies from the charity stripe to add an exclamation point to the Celtics’ meltdown.
After the game, Brad Stevens acknowledged that his young team has a serious issue with executing late in games. The team has fallen short against Toronto, Dallas, and Cleveland in tight finishes this season.
“I don’t think there is any question [we need to be better],” Brad Stevens said of the late game performance. “I think that’s an easy one. It’s easier said than done. I think the guys did a great job [with the comeback], until about the last minute or so.”
To put it simply, in late game situations, this roster still appears unable to respond to adversity right now, when it counts the most.
That development is a shame, since the late collapse overshadowed yet another stellar night from the Celtics offense. Rajon Rondo (14 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists) jumpstarted Boston’s second half run, while Tyler Zeller (19 points, seven rebounds) played his best game of the season and was rewarded with a season-high 27 minutes.
Those performances failed to mask the team’s inability to close the deal late, but the team’s biggest problem also remains on the defensive end of the floor.
Ever since Marcus Smart went down with an ankle injury last week, opposing offenses have had their way against an undermanned Celtics roster. That trend continued for the better part of 48 minutes on Monday night.
The high octane offense of the Suns, led by guards Dragic and Bledsoe, routinely broke down Boston’s interior defense, helping the Suns build an early 71-57 just two minutes into the third quarter. Suns forward Markieff Morris added a career-high 30 points on 14-for-21 shooting.
The Celtics slowed down the Suns’ attack a bit during their fourth quarter comeback, but the hosts allowed 109 points or more in their third straight game. In related news, the Celtics have lost three straight games.
That streak may come to an end Wednesday night when the Celtics face off with the winless Philadelphia 76ers. Without some improvements to the team’s defense though, Boston remains a team that can win — or lose — on any given night.