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While it’s good the Celtics could rally against the Mavericks, the same old problems doomed them in the end

Kemba Walker scored 14 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, when the Celtics rallied.
Kemba Walker scored 14 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, when the Celtics rallied.Tom Pennington/Getty

DALLAS — It’s as if this Celtics team doesn’t deserve anything except misfortune. They actually rallied late in Tuesday night’s game, played well enough to steal a win against the Mavericks, one they desperately needed, and then were beaten by two improbable shots from a generational player.

Luka Doncic stole the Celtics’ glory with two long 3-pointers in the final 15.8 seconds, including the winner with 0.1 seconds left at American Airlines Center. It’s as if fate wasn’t finished teaching the Celtics a lesson after their blown 24-point, third-quarter lead from Sunday.

Fate had more heartbreak in store. The 110-107 loss to Dallas put Boston under .500 and continued the team’s tumultuous season.

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What was even more disheartening was the Celtics rallied valiantly from a 104-93 deficit with three minutes left. They became the confident and efficient team they were earlier in the season. They got defensive stops. Kemba Walker knocked down a pair of threes and Jaylen Brown gave Boston the lead with 9.5 seconds left.

Could the Celtics have defended Doncic better? Perhaps. But a 33 percent 3-point shooter swished 25- and 28-foot shots in the closing seconds with defenders contesting. The Celtics were good, but Doncic was better.

“It’s another heartbreaking loss,” said Brown, who was named to his first All-Star team prior to the game. “We played well in spots yet again. We’ve just got to finish games. Doncic caught the [defensive] switch and hit two tough shots. We have a system [switching on everything]. We stuck to it and we lost.”

Dallas' Luka Doncic dribbles against Jaylen Brown in the second half of Tuesday's game.
Dallas' Luka Doncic dribbles against Jaylen Brown in the second half of Tuesday's game.Sam Hodde/Associated Press


It’s encouraging the Celtics rallied, however. They didn’t lie down, but maybe this was fate’s way of telling the Celtics they need to play the right way all the time.

The Celtics let the game slip away midway through the fourth quarter because they began playing hero ball, had botched coverages against Jalen Brunson, who scored 16 of his 22 points in the final period, and fouled too much again.

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Boston just isn’t good enough to play sloppy or absent-minded basketball. But it does. The Mavericks were in the bonus for the final 7:54, meaning the Celtics had to play nearly perfect defense to win. That’s a difficult request, especially against Doncic.

“It’s a killer,” coach Brad Stevens said of the constant foul trouble. “They had a foul to give on the last play and I heard Rick [Carlisle, the Mavericks’ coach] yell to give it. We don’t have a foul to give. So, if we can switch up into Doncic’s airspace at 50 feet and foul him, that’s a totally different deal. We’re trying to be more physical because we need to be, but we’ve got to balance that with fouling.”

In other words, the Celtics aren’t the defensive team they have been in the past, so when it’s time to shut down opponents, physicality is the first option. It’s not the best option, but it makes fourth-quarter comebacks excruciating.

While it was the two Doncic 3-pointers that beat the Celtics, the Celtics beat themselves with subpar play in the first half of the fourth quarter. The Celtics shot nearly 62 percent from the field in the final period, got 14 points from Walker, and lost because the Mavericks hit six more free throws.

The Celtics give their opponents easy points and bail out opposing defenses defense with lack of ball movement or quick shots.

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It’s a shame because the Celtics played so well in the final six minutes, desperate to change their luck. They needed a break, but Doncic took the game away, putting the Celtics in a more sunken place.

Dallas' Dorian Finney-Smith shoots as Tristan Thompson defends during the second half of Tuesday's game.
Dallas' Dorian Finney-Smith shoots as Tristan Thompson defends during the second half of Tuesday's game.Sam Hodde/Associated Press

The encouraging sign is they didn’t fold or relent when they easily could have. But the NBA isn’t the place for moral victories. The Celtics are going to have to play a complete game, avoid second-half lulls, selfish play, and silly fouls because they’re not going ease their way out of this slump.

If this team doesn’t already know, this season is going to be hard, and the goal is to play its best basketball in the coming months, when the playoffs begin, regardless of seed.

It was mixed emotions for Brown and Jayson Tatum because they’re both headed to the All-Star Game but are part of a struggling team.

“It’s like damn, look at our record, it’s hard to really focus on [the All-Star Game] when we’re not where want to be as a team,” Tatum said. “It’s an honor to be an All-Star, but we’re used to winning games and being at the top of the East. We’ve got to get a win first. It’s tough to lose like we did these last two games, but we get a win [Wednesday], feel a little bit better about ourselves, and hopefully we can built off that.”

The Celtics are now a team with a losing record, a downtrodden team trying to find ways to improve and again become a contender in the East. They’ve lost that title, but the hope is they learned from this bout with fate and can change their fortune. If not, there could be significant changes.

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Gary Washburn can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.