Under pressure, the Celtics collapsed. They choked.
And Brad Stevens was fuming afterward.
“We didn’t play with any poise,” the rookie Celtics coach said.
Strong words from Stevens — as strong as he’s used since taking the job.
But they were more than warranted Friday after the ending of the Celtics’ 87-80 loss to the Suns at TD Garden, which dropped Boston to 22-44, including 4-24 against teams from the Western Conference this season.
After the Celtics trailed by as much as 11, forward Jeff Green made a pair of free throws to tie the score at 80 with 2:02 left.
Stevens’s team crumbled from there.
It started with Phoenix center Alex Len converting a 3-point play on a tip-in with 54.1 seconds left.
On the Celtics’ next possession, Green bricked a 3-pointer, Rajon Rondo grabbed the rebound, and Celtics guard Chris Johnson airmailed a terrible pass that Suns forward P.J. Tucker intercepted near midcourt.
The result: an easy-as-pie fast-break dunk for Markieff Morris with 23.1 seconds left.
After Green bricked another 3-pointer, Morris grabbed the rebound and Goran Dragic made a layup with 11 seconds left, capping an 7-0 Suns run to end the game.
The Celtics didn’t have any good looks at the rim on those final possessions. In desperation, they just chucked bad shots that had no prayer.
“I don’t know if it’s as much as losing your poise. I mean we kind of got a bit antsy there at the end,” said Kelly Olynyk, who had 8 points and 10 rebounds off the bench.
“We didn’t try to get the best [shot] available; we took the first shot, the best available shot, so I think we kind of rushed a bit.”
From the bench, Kris Humphries, who led the Celtics with 11 points and 13 rebounds, threw a towel and stormed off the court in the final minute.
“He’s upset because we lost and he certainly has got a right to be,” Stevens said. “That was not a good ending. It was not a good performance.”
Humphries was just a tad livid, and he struggled to find the right words after the game.
“You don’t ever . . . ” he began.
“It’s tough,” he continued. “You don’t want to lose a game like that. If they hit a tough shot, a lot of times . . . ”
He paused again.
“But they were able to get a put-back and one and [that] kind of deflated us and we weren’t able to get a good look on the other end. We’ve got to get into something quick.”
Humphries has seen the Celtics’ failings late in games before.
“In the past, we’ve struggled a little bit with floor balance, meaning, if someone goes to the hole, the guards, one through three, have got to get back,” he said. “They were able to kind of leak out a little bit on us and get something easy.”
Indeed, the Celtics didn’t get back on defense at all, leading to easy Suns baskets in transition at the worst possible time.
It was a sour final note for the Celtics, who in the debut of their new, sleeved St. Patrick’s Day uniforms shot a season-low 30.9 percent from the floor, including an abysmal 3 for 21 from 3-point range.
“We missed 65 shots,” Stevens said. “That’s pretty incredible that we had a chance to win, but that’s not good and we need to make sure that we don’t do that again.”
While Stevens pointed to the end of the game, Rondo pointed to what preceded it.
“It didn’t just happen the last possession. It was the entire game,” said Rondo, who had 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 8 points on 4-of-15 shooting. “We rushed a lot of our shots tonight. We didn’t do a bad job of taking care of the ball. It’s just our shots didn’t fall. Give Phoenix credit.”
The Suns (37-28) were led by 20 points from Dragic, 17 points and 10 rebounds from Eric Bledsoe, and 11 points and 10 rebounds from Tucker.
Morris added 15 points and nine rebounds off the bench.
But Phoenix didn’t shoot the lights out, going 5 of 26 from long range. It was just its late-game execution that sealed the win.
Johnson scored 11 points for the Celtics. Green shot 2 for 14 and scored 9.
Avery Bradley, who returned after missing 13 consecutive games with a sprained right ankle, scored 9 points off the bench.
“The answer is yes, we collapsed at the end, but the fact of the matter is we probably lost the game just as much in the third quarter,” Stevens said.
“Our offense was incredibly stagnant. And, again, I didn’t think we took great shots and we were clearly not shooting well.”
The Celtics scored just 16 points in the third quarter, but opened the fourth on a 9-0 run to take a 69-64 lead. The game was back and forth from there.
And now the Celtics will head on the road for a back-to-back set at New Orleans Sunday, followed with a St. Patrick’s Day matchup with the Mavericks in Dallas.
A win in either game would be a bonus for the Celtics, who have lost 18 consecutive road games against Western Conference teams, including all 13 this season.
Until then, Stevens can rewatch the film of Friday’s ending, though he’d probably prefer to avoid it.
“The last 40 seconds were awful,” he said.
The same could be said for their season.