SACRAMENTO — Those Celtics faithful in the process of renting out bar space and convention halls for their NBA draft lottery parties should pause for a moment. There is intrigue in the final 25 games for the Celtics, whose playoff hopes faded quickly in the past three weeks.
With their 105-98 loss to the Sacramento Kings on Saturday night at Sleep Train Arena, the Celtics are eight games behind the Atlanta Hawks for the final playoff spot, and there is no reason to believe they are going to muster up enough resolve to make a legitimate run. Yet, there are reasons to follow the club in the last two months.
This is not earth-shattering news here, but the Celtics have no clue how to win games in the fourth quarter. They owned an 11-point lead entering the final period Friday night against the pitiful and injury-depleted Los Angeles Lakers and it took a mere 2 minutes, 46 seconds to get caught from behind. By then, the Lakers had all the momentum and the Celtics had nothing left to offer in a 101-92 loss.
It would have been a perfect opportunity for Jeff Green, who scored a Kevin Durant-like 11 points in the first 2 minutes, 52 seconds of the game, to take over, capitalize on the Lakers’ defensive deficiencies, and lead the Celtics back, but he was incapable. He finished with 21 points and had just 5 in that pivotal fourth quarter.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has to find out in the last 25 games who is capable of helping the team secure victories. Boston has blown countless games with flat fourth quarters, and getting outscored, 38-18, Friday by the Los Angeles reserves that included MarShon Brooks and Kent Bazemore was beyond embarrassing.
The primary issue is the lack of a go-to scorer who can get to the free throw line. In 12 fourth-quarter minutes, Green attempted six shots and did not attempt a free throw. Stevens needs him to be more aggressive but it has never been in Green’s nature to consistently seize the moment, so let’s stop expecting that.
The goal for the final two months is to find players who know how to win games — fearless players who attack pressure and are not daunted by adversity. The previous Boston coaching regime had no lack of players willing to take those chances, and while there were more than occasional failures, Doc Rivers never had to wonder about the fortitude of his lineup.
With early-20s youngsters such as Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, and Chris Johnson staring him in the face, Stevens has to patchwork his lineups in the final period, hoping for that late-game production. But he has been besieged with apathetic performances such as Friday’s, and while the mounting losses will foster the Celtics’ quest for a high draft pick, the losing habits can become contagious.
“We’ve got to be able to respond to adversity better,” Stevens said. “We’ve got to be able to build that. We have not shown that at enough of a level all year. That’s something that we’ve got to get better at. We’ve got to find over the next however long the season is, who can best do that. Because that’s going to be really important moving forward. We had moments where we played well but those stretches in the middle of the second [quarter on Friday] and that start of the fourth. Those were bad stretches for us. That 11-point lead was gone in a heartbeat.”
When asked whether the platform was there for Green to take control, Stevens said: “He was on early but I think really, we’re all reacting to the first four or six minutes. After that I thought we had a lot of guys that were playing at a reasonable level. Jeff made a couple of plays late but I’m sure he’d like to have some of those back, too.”
It’s critical for players such as Olynyk, Sullinger, Johnson, and even Rajon Rondo coming off knee surgery, to enjoy some success down the stretch of games. If winning isn’t the emphasis this season, which it isn’t, then establishing a winning culture should be — as well as sifting out those players who wilt under the pressure of the final quarter.
Said Rondo: “It’s a learning process. We have to figure it out soon, if not, it will be the same result [as Friday].”
Gerald Wallace, the team’s voice of reason and truth serum, said the team is backing down in those crucial moments when it is challenged.
“When you’re hitting them in the mouth, when you’re on the road, you’ve got to keep hitting them,” he said. “You can’t let up. The past two games, we’ve let up. When home teams get the momentum, it carries. These are two games [Los Angeles and Phoenix] where we just completely showed no effort [down the stretch] and we’ve got to figure it out.”
The difference between good teams and bad teams in the NBA is bad teams lose games in the fourth quarter and good teams don’t. The Celtics are a bad team right now, good enough to flourish through the first three quarters and poor enough to shrivel when the moment calls for execution. Stevens has to find out who’s capable of ending this disturbing trend. He has two months to determine who makes the cut.