ATLANTA — At least the Celtics know this type of collapse can only occur four more times.
The script is getting tired for an exhausted and frustrated team as it winds down a disheartening season. The Celtics play well enough to win, need to execute a couple of more minutes to seal it, and then seemingly discover ways to waste leads and lose games.
Wednesday night at Philips Arena may have been the most egregious of all. They led by 9 points with 5:44 left against a Hawks team that had lost all its offensive cohesion and looked befuddled.
All that was required are things the Celtics couldn’t discover this entire season: late-game execution, key defensive stops, and a go-to player who could get to the free throw line.
In a matter of moments, the Hawks went on a furious rally, lowlighted by ghastly defensive miscues against 3-point specialist Kyle Korver. Atlanta scored 25 points in the final 5:10 and raced away with a 105-97 win. It was Boston’s ninth straight loss and the second consecutive game in which the team squandered a fourth-quarter lead in mere moments.
Korver hit consecutive open 3-pointers, sneaking behind the Celtics’ defense to the corner. It was the equivalent of the Patriots allowing Calvin Johnson to go deep without a safety noticing. By the time Korver had the ball, he was stepping up and the result was predictable. His final 3-ball gave the Hawks a 93-92 lead with 3:09 left and the Celtics had no responses.
Leaving Korver open was the latest example of how the Celtics lack leadership in the late going. They were slow to get back on defense, arguing with officials, and both times the astute Jeff Teague found Korver, who has converted 47.8 percent of his 3-point shots this season.
“It was turnovers and transition defense and we just got stagnant,” coach Brad Stevens said. “I don’t know what to say, other than the fact we’ve got to play all the way through the game. We’ve got to be better collectively on both ends. But the big ones are those transition baskets. And the last [Korver 3-pointer], he was wide open. It’s not good.”
The Celtics allowed the Hawks to hit 14 of 18 shots in the first quarter, then reenergized and took control of the game until midway through the fourth. Avery Bradley, back after a three-game absence because of a strained right Achilles’ tendon, was draining jumpers. Rajon Rondo, back in Philips Arena for the first time since tearing his right ACL here 15 months ago, was driving and dishing, and Jared Sullinger was grabbing rebounds.
But when it came time to seal a hard-earned victory against a team closing in on the final playoff spot in the East, the Celtics became skittish, allowing Teague to become a defensive menace. The Celtics missed seven of nine shots in the final 5:44 with seven turnovers in the final period.
“They just got into us,” said Rondo, who finished with 19 points, 12 assists, and 5 turnovers. “It’s pretty much the same old story the last couple of games. The team makes a comeback, they turn the pressure up on us, and we tend to fold.”
The Celtics were 6 for 19 in the fourth quarter while the Hawks, led by Teague’s 19 points and Korver’s 17, were 12 for 19.
The Celtics’ offense picked up in the second quarter, climbing back after the Hawks jumped out to a 49-35 lead following a 3-pointer from Shelvin Mack, Stevens’s former pupil at Butler. The Celtics ended the half with a 16-7 run, including the final 5 points from Rondo. His final hoop was a 3-pointer with 8.4 seconds left that sliced the deficit to 56-51.
Bradley, who has been battling injuries most of the season, looked sharp in his return, tallying 10 points in the quarter on 3-for-5 shooting, and finishing with a game-high 24. Chris Johnson came off the bench to help out with 10 points as Boston recovered from its first-quarter stupor and played with more energy.
The Hawks, who suffered a disappointing home loss to Detroit Tuesday, looked as if they were going to knock out the Celtics in the first 12 minutes. They began the game 14 for 18 from the floor as they surged to leads of 12-2 and 32-23.
The Celtics outscored the Hawks, 56-38, in the second and third quarters and were close to their first win since March 19 until Korver changed the game.
“That cost us the game, for the most part,” Rondo said. “You don’t leave the best shooter in the gym open, especially late in the fourth quarter. We’ve got to do a better job of matching up transition-wise, quit complaining to the refs, and get back on defense.”