ORLANDO, Fla. — At one point late during the Celtics’ game Sunday against the Orlando Magic, the team came together, and their leader, Rajon Rondo, spoke up.
It was the second game back for the Celtics’ star point guard after he missed nearly a year with a knee injury. In his first game, two days earlier, the Celtics had a chance to win, but they blew it. Rondo pointed that result out to his teammates.
“He was telling us, ‘Let’s not have a repeat,’ ” Avery Bradley said.
And yet that’s what happened again.
Even worse, the Celtics didn’t get a shot off on their final possession in their 93-91 loss to the Magic, who snapped a 10-game losing streak.
“We’re one step from going over the hump,” said Rondo, who finished with 6 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in 21 minutes of floor time, nearly the maximum amount allowed per his minute restriction as he eases back into the rotation.
“We’ve lost a couple of games like this in the past. We’ve just got to take the next step.”
Still worse, the Celtics (14-28) have lost 14 of their last 16 and have lost nine straight road games, their longest road-losing streak since dropping 12 straight on the road in 2007.
“This is not fun for me at all, that’s the bottom line,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
But perhaps worst of all is that the Celtics squandered a game against the team with the second-worst record in the NBA (11-30). In a season when wins are hard to come by, such a loss will be hard for the Celtics to easily forget.
“For sure, especially because it’s the second game in a row that was close and we had a chance to win,” said Bradley, who scored 18 points.
After a back-and-forth final quarter in which the lead changed or was tied 15 times, the Celtics had the ball with 10.1 seconds left, trailing by 2.
Rondo passed the ball to Jeff Green, who was open for a 3-pointer on the right wing, but instead he drove right.
“I thought Jeff had a good shot that he passed up,” Stevens said.
Along the baseline, Green, who finished with a game-high 22 points and sank 13 of 15 free throws, passed to Bradley, who was in the left corner.
A defender quickly closed out on Bradley, who then started to drive toward the middle.
It looked like Bradley was about to pass to Rondo, then on the right wing, when the buzzer sounded.
“We lost track of time,” Jared Sullinger said.
And, as such, the Celtics lost, though they could point to other factors beyond the game’s final play, such as shooting 37 percent from the field, missing 10 of 13 3-pointers — or their poor play in the second quarter.
“Second quarter was what beat us ultimately,” Stevens said
For a game that was mostly even in the other three quarters, the Celtics were outscored, 35-20, in the second frame, which erased the 26-18 lead they had after the first quarter.
The Magic (11-30) shot 55 percent in the second quarter and made 12 of 13 free throws, lighting the Celtics up.
“We were just awful in the second quarter, and that came back to haunt us,” Stevens said.
Aaron Afflalo led the Magic with 20 points and 13 rebounds. Tobias Harris scored 18 points and hit a pair of go-ahead free throws with 10.1 seconds left after being fouled on a loose-ball scramble by Kris Humphries, who finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds.
“It just sucks that we didn’t win the game, because we fought hard the entire fourth quarter,” Bradley said.
A positive sign for Boston was that Rondo’s conditioning was good enough that he begged to stay in the game in spots before being taken out as a precaution.
“I feel fine,” he said. “I’ve just been getting a lot of treatment. Guys take good care of me. I’m doing the best I can. And then once the game starts, I think adrenaline just takes over and gets me through the game.”
Like his teammates, though, Rondo was still stinging from the loss.
“I love what I see,” Rondo said. “I love the fight the guys have. Like I said, we’re not coming up with the plays we need down the stretch, the last two games that I’ve played, to get the win.”
It appeared as though the Celtics were still adjusting to playing with Rondo.
“It’s only a matter of time before fatigue doesn’t set in, before he gets really, really comfortable out there,” Sullinger said. “And once he gets comfortable, we won’t have games like this, because his play-making ability will stop all that.”
Is it a big adjustment for the Celtics?
“It’s going to take a little bit of time,” Rondo said. “We don’t have a lot of practice time, so we’re getting adjusted during the games.”
Said Sullinger, “We had somebody similar, but not as elite, in Jordan Crawford. But Rondo, he’s slowly learning the offense on the fly. He’s competing. It’s only a matter of time before Rondo officially takes over like he did last year.”
Stevens agreed that the adjustment will take time, but he didn’t blame it for the loss.
“Obviously, Jordan played the majority of the minutes at [point guard] for us early in the year all the way up until the last week or so, and they are much different players,” he said. “There has been a little bit of an adjustment, and there will be. That’s no excuse not to take advantage of this opportunity better.”
And so the Celtics’ three-games-in-four-days road trip started off with a horrible stumble against one of the NBA’s worst.
From here, they’ll hop over to Miami to face one of the NBA’s very best — and a team that will no doubt aim to pay back the Celtics after losing on a miracle last-second shot when the teams met in Miami in November.Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.