LOS ANGELES — On the checklist of what the Celtics must do to win, or to even be in a ballgame, the top item is to play hard. Very hard. As hard as possible.
You’d think that would be a given for this rebuilding squad, but the first two games — both blowouts — of their five-game Western Conference road trip proved that effort can be optional.
Well, it wasn’t optional Wednesday when the Celtics played the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center. The Celtics played as hard as they have in some time, giving themselves a chance to win.
“I thought the whole game, we played hard,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who later added, “I can lay my head down at night and feel comfortable when we compete like that.”
But they still left the building with a loss, by a score of 111-105, which extends their downward spiral. The Celtics (13-23) have lost a season-high-tying six straight and nine of 10.
At this point, playing hard counts as a victory for a team that has struggled lately in that department, as they played until the final buzzer, trying to pull off a comeback to overcome a 4-point deficit in the final 10 seconds before falling short.
“Give them credit,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who earned a season-sweep of his former team. “They’ve been struggling. We had a chance early to get a knock-out – we didn’t. When you give a team life, then it’s desperation for them, and you can see that in the way they were playing. They almost pulled it out.”
It was an impressive effort on the road, on the second night of a back-to-back, after the Celtics had been blown out by 31 points in Denver Tuesday.
“We were ready emotionally to compete,” Stevens said. “That’s a positive. Now we’ve got to build on it. We’ve got to do it again and again and again.”
The Celtics were in an early 16-point hole after a 20-2 Clippers run in the first quarter nearly turned the game into another rout.
But they fought back with an 11-4 run to end the first quarter.
The game see-sawed from there, and the Celtics finally took the lead with an 11-2 run in the third quarter.
The Clippers bounced back with a 10-2 run to open the fourth, and they held on late despite a furious Celtics run.
“I told them in the locker room, I can live with that focused effort,” Stevens said. “Obviously, to come in here and win, you’re going to have to make more than 5 of 17 from 3, you’re going to not turn the ball over 18 times, you’re going to have to do a few more little things.
“But, we got into a defensive rhythm in the third quarter that I haven’t seen us get into very often, and hopefully we can build off that.”
Jordan Crawford, who with Avery Bradley had a team-high 24 points, said the Celtics played with the kind of effort they need for parts of the game.
“We’ve got to do it the whole game to beat teams like this,” he said.
Blake Griffin had 29 points, 8 assists, and 6 rebounds for the Clippers. Guard Jamal Crawford added 26 points and former Boston College star Jared Dudley had 18.
One memorable moment was Griffin’s dunk over Kris Humphries in the third quarter.
Griffin elevated in the lane and threw the ball in over Humphries, causing crowd, and Twitter, to go berserk.
Humphries was called for a foul, and Griffin sank the free throw, giving the Clippers a 77-72 lead.
Even still, the Celtics felt like the game was a step in the right direction. “For sure,” said Bradley. “Even to hear the coach say it after the game that he saw some good things, even though it was a loss, it put a smile on our face, because at least we’re trying and improving as a team.”
A dark spot was that Jared Sullinger picked up another Flagrant 1 foul on the same day he had one from Tuesday rescinded by the NBA.
He earned it early in the fourth quarter on a horse-collar type foul of Griffin when Griffin was driving toward the hoop.
Officials reviewed the call and deemed that it indeed was a Flagrant 1 call, giving Sullinger five Flagrant 1 fouls this season, one short of a one-game suspension.
If he earns a Flagrant 2 foul, he’ll be suspended for two games.
“It’s part of the game,” said Sullinger, who had 2 points in 12 minutes. “I’ve just got to adjust. I thought I adjusted a little bit today. I tried to wrap him up. Then I put my hands up to show him I wasn’t trying to do anything. But I guess I’ve got to make another adjustment.”
Stevens also went with a different starting lineup, using Humphries ahead of Sullinger because Stevens said Humphries had been playing so well lately.
“Hump is just playing at such a good level,” Stevens said. “Other guys are playing in a good level too. He’s been very productive. The more minutes we can have him on the floor, the better for our team.”
Humphries finished with 6 points and 8 rebounds before fouling out.
From here, the Celtics head to the Bay Area, where they’ll face the Golden State Warriors Friday.
Baxter Holmes can be reached at email@example.com