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CLEVELAND — Celtics players and coaches had been claiming the team was playing better basketball since an implosion two weeks ago in Atlanta. Then they turned in another awful first half against the downtrodden Cleveland Cavaliers that cost them a win on Wednesday.

The Celtics played with little passion or fortitude in the first 24 minutes and tried flipping the switch in the second half. Their valiant rally fell short in a 117-110 loss at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, another setback to a losing team.

Boston trailed by 17 points at halftime, and then mounted a surge to cut the lead to 100-96 with 3:36 left before a familiar collapse in the waning minutes, as the Cavaliers went on a 10-2 run to improve to 15-25.

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The Celtics (20-20) are back to .500, and this game appeared to be a victory in the start of a stretch against teams with losing records. But that has meant little this season as six of the Celtics’ 20 losses have come against teams with losing records.

Jayson Tatum led Boston with 29 points but he missed 10 of his 13 3-point attempts and couldn’t push the Celtics into the lead despite a hot second half. Jaylen Brown added 28 but it required 26 shots and he missed eight 3-pointers and four free throws.

“I don’t know,” Tatum sheepishly said about his subpar first half. “It’s tough. We’re all in this together and we’ve to figure it out. You need to lead by example, you do the right things on the court, everybody else will follow. I’ve got to do better with that approach.”

Collin Sexton led Cleveland with 29 points and hit a couple of key buckets down the stretch. To add insult, Sexton returned to the floor just moments after the win for a post-game workout.

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Celtics coach Brad Stevens was left to explain why a team that was coming off a tough loss Tuesday against the Utah Jazz sleepwalked to a 17-point halftime deficit.

“I thought we came out of the gate with really good effort,” Stevens said, despite his team falling behind 7-2 and 11-5. “What happened was we were affected by missing shots. And you could see our body language change. They had several possessions, where we got them to the end of the clock, we were guarding with great effort, but then we were affected and it took as awhile to get that back.”

Some other observations:

⋅ The fourth quarters have been an issue all season and again the Celtics were poor defensively in the final period. Cleveland scored 35 points in the fourth quarter on 71.4 percent shooting and converted 14 of 17 free throws. The Celtics simply couldn’t get any defensive stops and despite a 72-point second half, they lost by 7 points. The issue was the young Cavaliers players had so much confidence after the first half, they hit shots they generally don’t make. Larry Nance Jr. scored 14 points in the second half on 5-for-5 shooting. The best way to lose to a bad team is to give it confidence.

⋅ Robert Williams briefly left the game in the fourth quarter after landing awkwardly on his right knee during an alley-oop attempt. Tatum’s pass forced Williams to leap early and his knee was nicked by Nance, who was trying to avoid Williams. The center went back to the locker room for a few minutes but did return to the game. Williams said he just needed to stretch the leg to get back flexibility. He finished with another double-double (13 points and 14 rebounds) in 27 minutes.

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Cleveland's Isaac Okoro grabs a rebound in front of' Robert Williams Wednesday night.
Cleveland's Isaac Okoro grabs a rebound in front of' Robert Williams Wednesday night.Tony Dejak

⋅ With Kemba Walker out, the Celtics were going to struggle with the speed of the Cleveland backcourt combo of Sexton and Darius Garland (25 points) and the young tandem tore up Boston in the first half. They were 12-for-23 shooting for a combined 32 points with four 3-pointers. The Celtics had no answer defensively for their speed, as Garland was able to easily take his defender off the dribble for buckets. The Celtics began trapping in the first half and were able to contain the duo, but again, it was too late.

⋅ Brown left briefly with 9 minutes left in the opening period after apparently losing his contact lens. Brown was attended to by team trainers before returning a few minutes later. Brown is also in a free throw slump. He missed four against the Cavaliers and is 21 of 33 from the line in March.

⋅ Stevens again is resorting to digging into his bench for a spark. He nabbed second-year guard Carsen Edwards deep from the bench in the second period. Edwards played four first-half minutes and committed one foul. Javonte Green made a three-minute appearance in the second half and committed a foul.

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⋅ Grant Williams’s tough season became tougher after a second-quarter sequence in which he thought he was goaltended by Cleveland center Jarrett Allen, and then on the fastbreak down the floor, he fouled Allen, who was attempting a dunk, hard from behind. Williams was called for a flagrant foul. Williams finished with 7 rebounds but also 5 fouls in 22 minutes.

Jeff Teague drives against Cleveland's Dean Wade in the first half of Wednesday's game.
Jeff Teague drives against Cleveland's Dean Wade in the first half of Wednesday's game.Tony Dejak

⋅ The Celtics were 10 of 38 from the 3-point line, their fifth-worst shooting percentage (26.3 percent) from beyond the arc this season. What’s more the Celtics’ 12 worst percentages this season have all resulted in losses.

⋅ It was a uncharacteristically unproductive offensive night for Daniel Theis, who did not score and attempted one shot (a 3-pointer) in 26 minutes. The Celtics got a combined 5 points from starters Theis and Semi Ojeleye in a combined 45 minutes on one made field goal.


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