Blowing a huge lead at home (again) and losing a close game (again) is not how the Celtics wanted to close out 2013.
“What we want to do is get up 18-20 and push it to 24-26 when the other team starts quitting,” Celtics forward Kris Humphries said.
That would make for a fine New Year’s resolution, and perhaps it should rise to the top of the Celtics’ list after their 92-91 loss to Atlanta in a Tuesday matinee at TD Garden.
It was the fourth straight home game in which they held a lead of at least 18 points before an opponent stormed back. The Celtics have lost three such games, the latest when Atlanta dug out of an 18-point hole to improve to 18-14, dropping the Celtics to 13-18.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens pointed out that his team had two large runs — one in the second quarter that built that lead, another in the late third/early fourth quarter that helped keep the Celtics ahead by double digits.
“But two runs in a 48-minute game is not enough,” Stevens said. “We’ve got to play consistent for 48 minutes.”
That line has been recited time and again after these close losses, in which the team has played great in spurts and terrible in others, allowing opponents to claw back into games that seemed to be blowout wins.
Had the Celtics won, their inability to play with a lead might have escaped scrutiny for a day. Instead, it will be a nagging issue that they just can’t shake — the pebble in their shoe.
They did have a chance to win on the game’s final play, but following a timeout with 4.2 seconds left, Jordan Crawford missed a midrange, fadeaway jumper at the buzzer, capping his awful day (3 for 15, 8 points).
In a move that raised some eyebrows, Stevens stuck with his second unit for almost the entire fourth quarter, playing only two starters (guards Avery Bradley and Jordan Crawford) for a handful of minutes.
Stevens said he wanted to ride the hot hands of Kelly Olynyk (career-high 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting) and Humphries (season-high tying 18 points and 10 rebounds) on a night when his starters struggled.
“It was pretty obvious that today the guys that were playing at the end were the guys that played well today,” said Stevens. “So, you stick with them.”
The Celtics reserves scored 56 points — more than half the team’s total — and no starter scored in double figures, so Stevens’s “ride-the-hot-hand” reasoning held true in the box score.
“It was a little bit different,” said reserve guard Courtney Lee, who scored 11 points off the bench and played the entire fourth quarter. “I think it was after that Detroit game, he came into the locker room and said the one mistake that I made was taking me out when I had it rolling.
“I think he’s still learning. He’s understanding how the game flows right now. He’s coaching off that.”
Stevens has said several times that there’s not much difference up and down the roster in terms of overall talent. He calls it “evenness.”
There was little even on the other side. Led by Paul Millsap’s game-high 34 points and 15 rebounds, the Hawks starters scored 76 points, more than double the Celtics starters (35).
Starting Celtics forward Jared Sullinger scored just 2 points and made as many trips to the locker room with the trainer after aggravating a left wrist injury that he suffered in late November.
And Bradley and Crawford combined to shoot 5 for 25 from the field.
Crawford twice missed potential go-ahead shots, he first with about 8 seconds left, then at the buzzer after a timeout.
Of having Crawford take the final shots, Stevens said, “I felt like it was a good opportunity. Jordan lives for that. So I think he’ll probably beat himself up over it, but that’s OK; we play again on Thursday.”
The Celtics used a 19-4 second-quarter run to sprint ahead, but the Hawks used a 21-2 run that spanned the end of the second and the start of the third quarter to reclaim the lead.
“Teams make a run,” Crawford said. “That’s what NBA teams do.”
Especially when those teams are playing the Celtics and trail by 18 or more points, apparently.
There were 15 lead changes, including seven in the final 2:56.
Millsap put the Hawks ahead, 90-89, but Crawford answered with a long jumper with 1:36 left. The Celtics didn’t score again.
Jeff Teague added 16 for Atlanta, and Kyle Korver made a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter to extend his NBA-record streak to 101 consecutive games with at least one 3-pointer. He finished with 14 points.
The Celtics closed out December with a 6-6 record, and they are struggling to close out games, and opponents, with a late-game offense that has looked shaky.
Noting that the opponent plays a large factor, Stevens said there’s no exact answer.
“I’m continuing to search for it and I think we need to all continue to search for it,” he said. “But the biggest thing is, did we have our chances? Yes, we had our chances. Did we do everything we can to take advantage of our chances? I’d say no.”
The same could be said for their recent string of close losses, all of which featured a momentous buildup that was followed by an equally large letdown.