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Gary Washburn | on basketball

Tough loss to Blazers means Celtics need to win down the stretch if they want to avoid the play-in tournament

Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic makes a 3 point basket over Celtics center Tristan Thompson.
Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic makes a 3 point basket over Celtics center Tristan Thompson.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

It was a tough night in a season of tough nights for the Celtics. They avoided sleepwalking through the first half as they did Friday against San Antonio, playing a hot Portland team nearly even deep into the fourth quarter.

But a series of events occurred that just summarizes the Celtics’ season: an offensive goaltending call that looked to be a clear tip-in by Tristan Thompson and then a flagrant foul called on Marcus Smart after he drew an illegal screen from Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic.

And finally, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum collided in the final minute, when the Celtics were headed for defeat, as they converged to intentionally foul Damian Lillard.

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Brown got the worst of the collision, apparently spraining his already sprained right ankle.

The 129-119 loss had so many repercussions and puts so much pressure on the team to win at least five or six of its final seven games to avoid the play-in tournament.

The Celtics played better than their fate. And they are improving after that disastrous loss to Oklahoma City. But they’re going to need to be better.

Jayson Tatum fights for possession against ex-teammate Enes Kanter. Tatum ended the game with 33 points.
Jayson Tatum fights for possession against ex-teammate Enes Kanter. Tatum ended the game with 33 points.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

That’s what happens when you waste so many games over the last few months, games the Celtics will now regret. The good news is Even Fournier enjoyed his best game since returning from a debilitating case of coronavirus with 21 points in 33 minutes.

The Celtics can’t lament this loss for too long. The Trail Blazers who are making a push toward the sixth seed in the Western Conference had won their previous three games by 61 total points before Sunday. Portland’s elite shooters made the Celtics pay for every defensive mistake, every miscommunication and every slow close out.

The Blazers besides standout guards Lillard and CJ McCollum hit 12 3-pointers and McCollum hit seemingly every key jumper down the stretch. Portland is one of the better offensive teams in the NBA and it played that way. The Celtics can’t be too upset about the defeat.

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What they need to focus on is the next two weeks. They still control their own fate, especially with two monumental games with the Miami Heat beginning Sunday at TD Garden. But there can be no more first halves against the Spurs or lackadaisical efforts against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Celtics have to lock in from the opening tip and play as they are capable.

More encouragement came from the performance of rookie Aaron Nesmith, who turned in another impressive performance with 16 points and 4-for-4 shooting from the 3-point line. It has taken nearly all season for Stevens to settle on a rotation, but if Nesmith and Fournier are going to continue to add offense as well as energy plays, then the Celtics should have an improved bench for the playoff stretch.

The Celtics came away upset at Sunday’s loss and they should be. The officiating was shaky at best with the overwhelmed crew affecting the flow of the game with missed calls and then a long review of an illegal screen by Nurkic that led to a Smart ejection for making what they deemed intentional contact with his groin area with 1:56 left in the fourth quarter and the Celtics down 3.

But the officiating can’t be blamed for this loss. Boston committed 18 turnovers, 12 in the second half, and the Blazers turned those into 25 points. The margin for error is slim when facing quality teams and the Celtics’ occasional slippage cost them an important game, not a couple of controversial calls.

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So they have no choice but to look ahead. The New York Knicks are closing in on locking down the fourth seed. The Atlanta Hawks are also winning, and the Miami Heat just passed the Celtics on Sunday for the sixth seed. Luckily, four of the Celtics’ final seven opponents are well under the .500 mark, leaving those pair of home games with the Heat and the season finale at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks as their toughest challenges.

Regardless of what the Last Two Minute Report says or what NBA social media opines, the Celtics still lost this game and there is little they can do besides use it as motivation and try to close out the regular season with more consistent basketball and avoid the play-in tournament.

A key block by Jusuf Nurkic on Jayson Tatum in the fourth quarter allowed the Blazers to keep control down the stretch.
A key block by Jusuf Nurkic on Jayson Tatum in the fourth quarter allowed the Blazers to keep control down the stretch.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

The Celtics have to take those performances of Nesmith and Fournier, hope Brown is better after a couple of days off, and then get Kemba Walker back and finally field the healthy roster they’ve haven’t had all season. There have been several occasions to chide the Celtics for their lack of passion and fortitude but this isn’t one of those occasions.

They made too many turnovers and lost to a team whose premium shot makers all made those shots. So you scoop up your pride, take a couple of days off, and approach the final seven games as if you are a better team than what you showed most of the season.

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“I thought we did a lot of good things,” Stevens said. “We got beat by a team that’s dialed in. They are playing great basketball, making tough shots. We had a couple of big breakdowns. I did not think that [officiating] stuff would be any reason for us to have an excuse.”

So it’s time for the “no excuse” Celtics to take advantage of a softer schedule, get back to playing their best ball and avoid the play-in tournament. But it won’t be easy.


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