The Celtics started this season crafting fourth-quarter magic. Jayson Tatum improbably banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send them to an opening-night win against the mighty Bucks, and over the next two weeks, they surged to last-second wins over the Pistons and Heat, too.
But those powerful endings masked a larger issue that has grown considerably worse recently: The Celtics have been one of the worst closing teams in the NBA this season.
The Celtics have been outscored by 9.6 points per 100 possessions in fourth quarters, the second-worst mark in the league. They are just 0.2 points better than the Hawks, and they are the only team in the bottom eight in fourth-quarter net rating that currently owns a winning record.
Ever since their 124-97 win over the Magic Jan. 15, the Celtics’ fourth-quarter net rating is minus-11.8. They are 4-8 over that stretch.
When condensed to “clutch situations” — when games are within 5 points in the final five minutes — the recent downturn is even more grisly.
When the Celtics got off to the 8-3 start that included the three wins with last-second heroics, they were dominant in the clutch. In seven games during that span that met the criteria, they outscored opponents by 24.8 points per 100 possessions, thanks in large part to their suffocating 85.0 defensive rating.
But over this most recent 12-game stretch, they have come unraveled in close games.
In the nine games in this span that were within 5 points in the final five minutes, they were bopped with a minus-28.8 net rating. The most recent and obvious example came in Tuesday’s 122-108 loss to the streaking Jazz. The Celtics were within 105-101 with five minutes left before Utah closed the game with a crushing 17-7 run.
“The fourth quarter was embarrassing,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “That’s the time we are supposed to be our grittiest, and it seems like we just fell apart, in a sense.
“And that’s a lack of toughness and a lack of leadership, and a lot of that is on me. As a leader of this team, I take responsibility for how we respond and how we come out, and in the fourth quarter, it just wasn’t there for us.”
There is not one reason for the struggles. Marcus Smart’s absence over the last five games has certainly dented the defensive intensity; Brown and Tatum both missed games in this stretch; and Kemba Walker continues to struggle after missing the first 11 games of the season.
But as coach Brad Stevens continues to experiment and seek rotations and groups that thrive together, he will surely attempt to find one with a defense-first mentality that can keep these fourth quarters from spinning out of control.
After the Celtics played a solid defensive first half against the Jazz, Utah began drawing fouls and getting to the rim with ease, and the Celtics simply had no answer.
“It was their ability to drive the ball, and then it opened everything up, opened the floodgates,” Stevens said. “The last few dunks by [Rudy] Gobert were disappointing. But they put us in a bind and we were on our heels from that point on.”
When Brown was a freshman at Cal during the 2015-16 season, he became friends with walk-on guard Nick Kerr. Brown was less than a year from being selected by the Celtics with the No. 3 overall pick of the draft, but his NBA education began a bit earlier than that, because Nick’s father, Steve Kerr, happened to coach the Golden State Warriors.
Steve Kerr chuckled recently when he recalled driving his son and Brown to Oracle Arena to watch Golden State play.
“I remember at the time telling Jaylen, ‘Please don’t say anything, because I think this might be a violation of some sort, because you’re supposed to be a lottery pick,’ ” Kerr said recently, smiling.
While Brown occasionally attended Warriors games, Kerr was at Cal games whenever his schedule allowed, and he said Brown’s NBA makeup was clear.
“I think really the biggest thing that stood out then was Jaylen was a really, just a physical force of nature, and it was really obvious that he would stand out even at the NBA level on a physical front,” Kerr said.
“But he didn’t have the skill that he has now and I think it’s a testament to Jaylen and the amount of work he’s put in and Brad and his staff in Boston.