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Celtics can’t keep giving up late leads

Jordan Crawford (left) and Avery Bradley walked down the court as the Celtics trailed by seven points, 104-97, with fewer than 19 seconds remaining.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Jordan Crawford (left) and Avery Bradley walked down the court as the Celtics trailed by seven points, 104-97, with fewer than 19 seconds remaining.

Now that the Celtics have proven capable of beating good NBA teams, expectations have risen and losses such as Saturday’s against the Wizards are more than disappointing. They’re crushing.

The Celtics led by 16 after one quarter, led by as many as 18 in the first half, and even led by 8 with six minutes left, but eventually lost, 106-99, at TD Garden.

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On Wednesday night against the Detroit Pistons, the Celtics led, 52-32, and eventually lost after falling behind and then rallying to take a 1-point lead with a minute left.

The Celtics are dominating teams early in games, only to succumb to better execution and adjustments by the opponents down the stretch.

The Celtics faced their peers the past three days in Washington and Detroit. Both teams are inconsistent, hovering around .500, and are candidates for the final three or four slots in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Both times the Celtics popped their opponent in the mouth, only to melt in the fourth quarter.

What the Celtics want to avoid is gaining the reputation as a front-running team, one that only plays well when shots are falling. Defensively they were torched in the second half, allowing 62 points to a team that scores 99 per game. Trevor Ariza, the journeyman known more for his defense, scored 19 points in 19 second-half minutes, most of those on open shots.

Meanwhile, the Wizards were vicious in their defense of the pick-and-roll and the Celtics responded with silly, unforced turnovers. The players weren’t in a good mood following the game, understanding they are wasting chances to build wins and legitimize themselves. There are those observers waiting for the Celtics to collapse, to show their true colors.

“Right now we’re not understanding the game, we’re getting too comfortable with our shots falling,” forward Gerald Wallace said. “When you’re making shots, the game is a lot easier, it’s a lot funner, things go a lot better. When you’re not making shots, it’s tough. When you continue to shoot those shots and it’s not falling, that’s a lot of pressure on your defense.”

In that second half, Jared Sullinger and Avery Bradley teamed for 31 points on 14-for-23 shooting while the other three starters scored 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting. The Celtics’ strength is their balance, and that means their more productive players have to force the issue at times in the second half. Jeff Green, who was whisper quiet following the game, attempted just five shots after halftime and scored an inexcusable 3 points with one rebound.

The Celtics have to learn to deal with prosperity because this hardly will be the first time — given the putrid Eastern Conference — they take a sizable lead into the second half.

Wednesday night was understandable, because the Pistons got hot with Brandon Jennings and punished the Celtics in the paint with Andre Drummond.

Saturday was tougher to digest because the Wizards ended the game on a 22-7 run as the Celtics went 5:39 without a field goal. Coach Brad Stevens has motivated his team to play hard each night; that is no longer a concern. But now comes the more difficult part of ensuring the players execute in the final quarter when more cohesive teams realize they can rally.

“Maybe we need to reevaluate some of our lineups to counter some of that length [from opponents] and some of that extra stuff,” Stevens said. “More than anything we’re maybe not playing with enough just focus on controlling the next thing, because when you start to lose a lead, that’s a challenging thing. One of the things we’ve got to do is we’ve just got to be better in playing the next possession. A lot of that has to do with being young, a lot of that has to do with being on the right side of the scoreboard. This is the next challenge that comes with that, right?”

The Celtics now have lost to Milwaukee (twice), Memphis (twice), Detroit (twice), Washington, and Charlotte, which accounts for half of their defeats, and all those games were winnable with better fourth-quarter execution. The Celtics have to get over being content with themselves after stunning basketball observers with their competitiveness.

It’s time they become a better team that understands the importance of finishing games, one that realizes the consequences of falling apart. Rajon Rondo will rejoin the team soon and he will provide a steady ballhandling presence in the fourth quarter, because Saturday Jordan Crawford couldn’t compete with John Wall on that level.

The Celtics have to increase their sense of urgency as they navigate through what is going to be an increasingly difficult schedule. Blowing games leads to that “uh-oh” feeling each time an opposing team starts to rally. There is no way the Celtics should have lost Saturday. They were the better team for 42 minutes. Now comes the arduous task of extending that for six more minutes.

“Not being focused the whole 48 minutes . . . it’s big in the NBA to [be focused], it’s a mental game as much as it is physical,” Crawford said. “That’s the difference between a good team and great team. You’ve got to step on the pedal when you got them down, that’s what we’ve got to do.”

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.
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