PHILADELPHIA — While most of his teammates and coaches are encouraged by the Celtics’ progress, floor leader Rajon Rondo, who posted his first triple-double of the season, wants nothing to do with any discussion of optimism on nights such as these.
There were more positive stretches, stellar defense, staunch rebounding, but yet again, the Celtics faltered down the stretch and lost a winnable game.
Wasting several chances to seal the first of back-to-back games against the 76ers, the Celtics had one last chance to win it, but Rondo, taking a surprise pass from Kevin Garnett in the final moments of overtime, slipped before releasing a jumper that missed everything, sending the Celtics to a bitter 95-94 loss at Wells Fargo Center.
With 2.7 seconds left and the play called for Garnett to take the final shot, Garnett saw Rondo flash to his right and flipped him the ball. Rondo lost his footing on a wet spot and tossed a Three Stooges-type shot, exemplifying the Celtics’ late-game struggles in front of a national television audience.
Although the consensus in the locker room is the Celtics are methodically progressing, Rondo disagreed.
“I don’t listen to that, it’s all about wins and losses,” he said. “If you play great and lose every game, that doesn’t mean anything. It’s all about wins and losses.”
Similar to the Dec. 1 loss at Milwaukee, the Celtics missed several makeable shots down the stretch, but the most disconcerting one may have been Courtney Lee’s airball 3-pointer with 25.9 seconds left and the Celtics leading, 94-93. He was wide open in the corner, his preferred spot on the floor, and Rondo whipped a pass, giving his new teammate a chance to clinch the game.
He missed everything and Dorell Wright caught the ball. Evan Turner, who has caused the Celtics issues with his versatility, backed up Paul Pierce and drained a 13-footer with 3.9 seconds left, setting up the final play.
The Celtics would have preferred Garnett deciding their fate with a jumper but he saw Rondo open. It was Rondo’s second chance to win the game. He missed a 19-footer at the buzzer in regulation after the Celtics rallied feverishly to tie the score.
Garnett finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds and canned a jumper to send it into overtime, but he opted for Rondo in the end, possibly a symptom of the team’s offensive confusion 19 games into the season.
“I didn’t see it yet so I don’t really know what happened because it looked like Kevin had the shot,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “We had him deep, right where we wanted him. He should probably always shoot it, but if he thought a guy had a layup, then he made the right decision. Tough loss, though.”
Turner led the 76ers with 26 points and was their lone offensive option down the stretch after Jrue Holiday fouled out, but it proved enough.
The Celtics manhandled Philadelphia defensively, holding the 76ers to 17-for-49 shooting after halftime. The problem was the Celtics were 15 for 40 in the same stretch with 12 turnovers.
Although Rondo was brilliant (16 points, 13 rebounds, 14 assists) despite foul trouble, Paul Pierce took 24 shots to score 27 points and Jason Terry missed 11 of 12 shots. The Celtics launched a season-high 22 3-pointers but made just six.
“If this game was only about [good] looks, it was our night tonight, we had all the looks we wanted,” Terry said. “I know me personally, I always look at myself first. If I hit one shot, that’s the difference in the ball game.”
The drama was thick in the final minutes of regulation as the Celtics continuously wasted chances to forge ahead with missed free throws and 3-pointers.
They appeared doomed when Garnett missed a chip shot put-back with 35.9 seconds left and the 76ers grabbed the rebound.
The defense responded by forcing a Holiday miss, then setting up a play to get Garnett another chance. He sealed this one, canned a tying 20-footer with 7.9 seconds left. The Celtics had one more chance to win in regulation after forcing a bad pass from Turner, but Rondo passed up on a chance to drive for a runner and missed a stepback 19-footer, another potential miscue.
“In the one right before overtime, we gave it to Rondo to drive it. I thought he had [Holiday] because he had a really good matchup on him, but he took a step back,” Rivers said. “I could live with that. I thought that was one where we probably could have gotten to the basket.”
The Celtics watched a 4-point halftime lead disappear quickly when the 76ers began executing their offense, then forced Boston turnovers.
Philadelphia began the quarter with an 11-2 run as Turner, who has punished the Celtics over the past two years, began heating up.
The lead was stretched to 68-61 after a Thaddeus Young free throw but the Celtics managed to even the score with a 9-2 run toward the end of the quarter. Yet, it was still a poor sequence with eight turnovers in the period, four by Rondo.
Rondo was stellar in the first half playing with a combination of aggression and caution, preventing the silly mistakes that have plagued him when he dominates the ball. He was two assists shy of a triple-double in the first half as the Celtics led, 50-46.
But he was more focused on the outcome.
“It’s frustrating but the best thing about the league is you play tomorrow,” he said. “We can bounce back.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe