That’s the label many slapped on Wednesday night’s matchup between the Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, a nod to the charge that both teams are losing games this season in the hopes of landing a top lottery pick.
Believe it or not, it added intrigue to a meeting of two of the NBA’s worst teams, because the question still had to be answered: Beyond which team is worse, which could outdo the other when it came to their ultimate goal of losing?
And in that case, the Celtics accomplished their mission, falling, 95-94, on a buzzer-beating shot by 76ers guard Evan Turner at TD Garden.
“A game like this kind of lets you know where you stand,” said the Celtics’ always-unfiltered Gerald Wallace, who scored 1 point in 34 minutes.
Where the Celtics (15-33) stand is in the basement of the Atlantic Division mess, a spot occupied by the 76ers (15-31) before the game. The Celtics have lost four straight, 19 of their last 22, and now have the third-worst record in the NBA.
They have seen better days, but few worse.
“We need a win more than anybody,” Wallace said. “We’re starting to slide down the hill.”
It’s a reach and could be classified as foolish optimism, but the Celtics’ only bright side, perhaps, is that in the Eastern Conference, you’re never completely out of it. And even with all their losing, the Celtics are 5½ games back of the conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.
“We could get hot,” said guard Jerryd Bayless, who scored 10 points off the bench. “It’s still a possibility, we could get hot and you never know, with [Rajon] Rondo coming back, with a lot of the guys getting healthy, there’s still a chance. We just have to continue to play together and hopefully that situation happens.”
Rondo, who is easing his way back into the lineup after missing nearly a year because of knee surgery, was absent Wednesday, sitting out to rest for precautionary reasons because the game was the second of a back-to-back set.
Rookie point guard Phil Pressey started in place of Rondo and had his worst game as a Celtic, missing 6 of 7 shots and finishing with five turnovers and two assists. Even then, the Celtics, who were led by Jared Sullinger’s 24 points and 17 rebounds, had a chance to win late.
After trailing by as many as 14 points, the Celtics used a 15-4 run to take an 86-78 lead with 8:05 remaining. The 76ers answered with a 12-4 run, foreshadowing a dramatic back-and-forth finish.
Kris Humphries gave the Celtics a 94-92 lead when he tipped in a Sullinger shot with 41.6 seconds left. Turner made 1 of 2 free throws with 34.8 seconds left to bring the 76ers within 1.
On the Celtics’ final possession, Humphries missed a wide-open jumper from the baseline with 12 seconds left.
Hamilton native Michael Carter-Williams grabbed the rebound and fed the ball to Turner, who didn’t wait for his coach to call a timeout. Instead, he bulled his way to the rim and released a one-handed floater from about 8 feet. It fell through as the buzzer sounded.
“A good player made a great play,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “I think sometimes, it’s as simple as that. This isn’t one of these games where I’m going to be just beside myself with our execution at the end. The execution was pretty good.”
The 76ers didn’t play great. They missed 14 3-pointers and 11 free throws. They were outrebounded by 19 and outscored by 10 in second-chance points.
Yet somehow, they still won, which doesn’t speak well of the Celtics, who shot 36.8 percent from the floor.
The 76ers outscored the Celtics, 58-40, in the paint and had 10 turnovers, while the Celtics had 18.
Jeff Green scored 13 points in the first quarter, but he pulled one of his classic disappearing acts after that, scoring just 5 points the rest of the way.
Turner finished with 16 points, 8 assists, and 6 rebounds.
Spencer Hawes scored a team-high 20 points for the 76ers. Carter-Williams had 10 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds.
The Celtics’ goal now: stay positive. How?
“If you have animals, you go home and hang out with them,” Humphries suggested.
In reality, the Celtics need a win to give them the slightest bit of positivity.
“Yeah,” Stevens said. “Again, I think you have to be really mentally tough to learn through and to grow through tough circumstances, but you have to be really mentally tough to win a playoff series. You have to be really mentally tough to come back from a bad loss and win the next night.
“If you’re not mentally tough, you have a ceiling in this business. So you might as well learn it now, and I think that’s the biggest thing about it. These kind of games, and our response to these kind of games, will tell me a lot about what we’ll look like down the road.”
What can Stevens do to keep his team together, to lift its spirits at a time when it has virtually nothing to feel positive about?
“Well, I told them, ‘You can’t let your circumstances control your thoughts. You have to make your thoughts improve your circumstances,’ ” Stevens said.
“And everybody wants something, but we have to make small tweaks and changes to get something. And that’s the hard part, is getting guys to do that through a dispiriting loss. But you know, I’m not going to be that way, and it’s my job to try to be contagious in not being that way.”
He’s got his work cut out for him.Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.