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tara sullivan

The Celtics can’t close out games, and the responsibility to address it lands on Brad Stevens

Brad Stevens couldn't push the right buttons in Sunday's overtime loss to the Pelicans.
Brad Stevens couldn't push the right buttons in Sunday's overtime loss to the Pelicans.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

The Celtics are an easy target today. Such is the price for polluting the national television airwaves with their latest fourth-quarter meltdown, this time blowing a 24-point lead to the Pelicans on Sunday afternoon. It was only the biggest comeback in New Orleans franchise history.

The stunning overtime setback deserves any description of frustration you want: ugly, embarrassing, sad, infuriating, inexcusable. As coach Brad Stevens admitted after the carnage: “We’ve got a lot of things to clean up, obviously.”

No debate, even from him, about what tops the list: “Finishing the game is No. 1.”

It’s a player problem, yes, and the absence of injured Marcus Smart, with his fiery hatred of losing and intrinsic killer instinct, is clearly felt. But it’s a coaching problem too, and one that, until solved, will continue to heap pressure on Stevens’s shoulders for an inability to recalibrate the team’s mind-set late in games.

The roster has changed plenty these past few seasons around nascent superstars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But the penchant for letting games slip away late has not, and that’s not a good look for the coach.

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Stevens acknowledged as much Sunday, saying, “It’s enough of a trend, enough of a concern. We’ve got to stop it. Last year at this time, we were in really good shape in those moments. This year, we’re not. It has not been good.”

Monday brought some perspective, with Stevens shouldering his part of the problem. He insisted, “It’s certainly not just by any means on [the players] or the guys that are playing in the fourth,” but “everyone in the organization and certainly on me and my staff in helping as much as we possibly can.”

Brad Stevens calls to his players during the first half of a recent game against Denver.
Brad Stevens calls to his players during the first half of a recent game against Denver.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Today’s topic may be hinged on Sunday’s massive meltdown, but Stevens also has to take ownership for being the coach whose team twice surrendered double-digit leads to the Heat in last year’s Eastern Conference finals (14 and 15 points), and who has had four different 2-0 series leads in the playoffs get tied at 2-2.

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Stevens deserves every ounce of credit for leading the Celtics to three of the last fourconference finals, but he also has to accept the frustrating inability to clear that hurdle. Sports reputations are built on being able to close.

“Just blowing the lead is the toughest part,” Tatum said Sunday, after his beautiful last-second floater gave the Celtics one final chance in overtime but ultimately went for naught. “Obviously we gave ourselves a chance in overtime, but if we want to be a really good team, we’ve got to put teams away earlier, especially being up 20-something points. But we let them come back.”

Statistics alone prove his point, unmasking the many times the team has failed to close out winnable games this season (or barely survived, as they did Friday against Atlanta, barely preserving what was once a 27-point lead).

The Celtics are dead last among 30NBA teams in average fourth-quarter margin. They fell to the basement after the Pelicans outscored them, 34-21, Sunday, New Orleans’s 52.2 percent shooting in the quarter exposing a wilting defensive effort as well as a lack of adjustment against powerful young star Zion Williamson.

Yet as much as we love number crunching in sports, it doesn’t tell the full story, unable to account for what’s needed on the mental side of the equation. The Celtics have time to figure it out, though a .500 record after 30 games does nothing to inspire belief there is another deep playoff run in the offing.

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Will Danny Ainge make a deal between now and the trade deadline?
Will Danny Ainge make a deal between now and the trade deadline?Elise Amendola/Associated Press

For now, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge seems patient, insisting in a radio interview late last week that there is no indication that the players are tuning out Stevens, and he is not willing to be pressured into a panic move. (And what team would really want to ship the Celtics a top player now, with the trade deadline still more than a month away?)

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, or Ainge would not also have told 98.5 FM, “I don’t think we respect our opponents enough.”

That’s a coaching problem, and one Stevens needs to address. The last four losses have come against teams without a winning record among them, endorsing every word of Ainge’s troubling sentiment.

Maybe Sunday’s setback serves as a wake-up call. The Celtics sure seem to need one. Stevens said Monday that the game “stung,” that it “hurt,” and described “a terrible plane ride home” and “a tough night’s sleep.”

Clearly, the Celtics miss Smart. They are being patient with Kemba Walker, and they have yet to make up for what Gordon Hayward gave them and need production from the wings. But they also need a killer instinct, a will to win down the stretch that isn’t predicated on hero, isolation basketball, or devoid of defensive intensity.

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“This one definitely hurts,” Brown said after his 7-for-23 Sunday. “Just a tough loss. We 100 percent should have won that game. I would have liked to play better.

“We’ve just got to keep playing the game the right way. In that [fourth-quarter] stretch, we went back to some of our bad habits. We have to match energy, and we didn’t, so we ended up losing. We got comfortable and got rolling on their home floor. Then it really becomes hard to try to cut the water off at that point.”

Reality is cruel. Find a way to do it, or drown.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.