When Jaylen Brown sank a 3-pointer directly in front of Doc Rivers and the 76ers bench with 4:14 left Monday night, the Celtics had a golden opportunity to seal an important win, build some momentum and begin to separate themselves from the likes of the mediocre.
The Celtics were up 7 points. They needed just a couple of more positive plays to close out the Philadelphia 76ers. Instead, they panicked with their prosperity. Philadelphia All-Star Joel Embiid took over, but the Celtics handed the 76ers the game, relenting down the stretch.
Turnovers, missed free throws, defensive mistakes and a bizarre technical foul led to the Celtics’ demise. Once again, they proved good enough to beat a quality team for 44 minutes and then melt down.
The Celtics are now 4-6 in this difficult December schedule, with four of those losses by 7 points or fewer. And it’s games like Monday’s they’ll point to in April when they miss a playoff seed by one game.
But this is who the Celtics are for now. They’re an average team, win some and lose some. Look good one minute, look befuddled the next. Need one more play to seal and win and never get it.
Boston was 2-for-7 shooting with four turnovers in the final three minutes. And each time the Celtics attacked the rim, Embiid was there to challenge the shot. The 76ers played sparkling defensively in the final four minutes, but the Celtics have to hold on to a 7-point lead. They can’t yield 18 points in one-third of a quarter.
“I don’t feel like scoring was the problem,” coach Ime Udoka said about the final minutes. “We were in a decent flow there. I’d say we scored enough to win, even with the turnovers. I think the defense on Embiid was as poor as the offense there. But we did have some late turnovers.”
The Celtics can perhaps get a pass allowing Embiid to score 41 points, but they were forced to use defensively-challenged Enes Freedom against him for 40 minutes. With Al Horford in health and safety protocols, the Celtics desperately needed Robert Williams to produce, but he was a late scratch because of personal reasons.
Williams has had a nice season for the Celtics when he’s been on the floor, but he hasn’t been as available as Udoka would like because of nagging injuries or, in this case, personal reasons. Williams has already missed eight games this season and the Celtics are 3-5 in those games. Freedom and inexperienced Bruno Fernando were the Celtics’ lone legitimate big men, so the Embiid matchup was going to be even a bigger issue than usual.
“We were, to some extent, defending him OK, he was taking some tough (2-point shots),” Udoka said. “We were kind of living with him taking those tough shots and keeping everybody else under control and he got going at the end there.”
Embiid is one of the best perimeter shooters for a big man in the league’s history. He has an exceptional touch for a 7-footer, and he picked the Celtics apart, with nine of his 14 field goals outside the paint, including the sealing 17-foot stepback with two defenders in his face with 12 seconds left.
Philadelphia’s star made plays to win the game. Boston’s stars didn’t. Jayson Tatum was 1-for-5 in the fourth quarter for 2 points and didn’t score for the final 11:21. Tatum and Brown, who shot a combined 3-for-9 in the fourth with three turnovers, had to carry most of the Celtics’ scoring load and therefore have to shoulder the responsibility for the team’s inconsistency.
“We weren’t getting away with some of the things we might normally get away with,” Brown said. “Our defense, how we played, a solid defensive game but we’ve got to do more. We had to take it to the next step and it wasn’t there.”
Udoka and Brown each pointed to defensive slippage. Such as when the Celtics were up 1 and Embiid swung the ball to Seth Curry, who drew two defenders at the 3-point line. Tatum was a step late to close out to Danny Green, who took a pass from Curry and drained the go-ahead 3-pointer.
That was a major mistake, the type that costs teams close games. If Tatum closes out on Green in time, he either takes a contested 3 or swings it to Tobias Harris, who was being defended by Romeo Langford. Instead, the Celtics gave a man with 1,500 career threes an open 3-pointer.
This is the lack of execution that keeps a team at .500.
“I know people are tired of hearing it and people probably have lost belief and faith but mine is unwavering,” Brown said. “I still think we can be a good team. We showed it in spurts. I have been out for an extended [period] of time and I’m trying to get back.
“The question is, if you ask if I still believe? 100 percent, regardless of if anybody else does or not.”
The Celtics are going to have to find a way to win games like these, because they are mired in the same mediocre state that has played the organization for almost two years now.