For most of Wednesday night, it seemed as if the Celtics were taking shots on a rigged carnival game. They are among the most skilled basketball players in the world, yet time and again they fired up open 3-pointers and watched the ball thud off the rim rather than go through it.
Some were air-balls that never had a chance. Some were pinballed around before popping out. Most of them were open.
As the misses piled up the groans of the fans at TD Garden intensified, but they seemed to be tinged with more sympathy than disgust.
It was almost as if the Celtics believed the law of averages had to shift in their favor at some point. But it never did. They made just 4 of 42 3-pointers and fell to the Clippers, 91-82.
“I guess we’re due for a lot of makes,” said Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, who was just 1 for 13 from beyond the arc. “If we’re wide open we’ve got to keep shooting it with confidence. I keep telling my guys that.”
The 3-point flurry was mostly a response to the Clippers’ packed-in zone defense. Los Angeles has often used a zone this season, and with several of the Celtics’ best penetrators sidelined — Jayson Tatum, Dennis Schröder, and Marcus Smart — the Clippers thought they could essentially silence Boston’s interior attack.
If some of the resulting 3-pointers had gone in, the Clippers probably would have been forced to adjust. But the misses kept piling up, like dirty dishes after a holiday feast, so the Clippers simply leaned even more into their scheme.
“Nobody tries to miss shots on purpose, " Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “We’re being unselfish and passing the ball to get wide-open shots against the zone. That’s what they’re trying to do, protect the paint and make us take those threes.”
With their third consecutive loss the Celtics slipped to 16-19 and are now in a virtual tie with the Hawks and Raptors for the No. 10 seed in the Eastern Conference, the last slot for the play-in tournament.
The good news is that the season does not end any time soon, but the short-term bad news is that the mighty Suns are coming to Boston on Friday.
It’s been a miserable week for a Celtics team that is still trying to find consistency. There was the late Christmas collapse against the Bucks, the embarrassing loss to a G League-level Timberwolves roster, and now this night when everything seemed to end with a thud.
“It was just a [expletive] game,” Brown said, “and unfortunate because we wanted to come back and respond after not playing so well in Minnesota. But I don’t know what else to say. We didn’t play — we didn’t knock enough shots down to win. We played hard, but we ended up in a loss. So, that’s it.”
Brown had 30 points and eight rebounds to lead the Celtics, but he made just 13 of 36 shots and did not register an assist. Of course, he could have had a few if the Celtics had simply hit open attempts.
Aside from Grant Williams, who was 2 for 3 from beyond the arc, no one was spared from the mess. Al Horford was 0 for 7. Payton Pritchard and Josh Richardson were each 0 for 5.
“I guess teams are daring us to make shots,” Brown said, “and we got them tonight. We just didn’t knock them down. Next time we’ve got to knock them down. We should make teams pay for going zone.”
There were some encouraging aspects of this loss, and that made it even more frustrating for the Celtics. They grabbed 21 offensive rebounds, committed just eight turnovers, and held the Clippers well below 100 points. But those are just footnotes from an atrocious night of outside shooting.
The Celtics remained shorthanded, with Tatum, Smart, Schröder, Enes Kanter Freedom, and Aaron Nesmith out. But for the second game in a row they were facing a team missing even more of its core. The Clippers were without starters Paul George, Reggie Jackson, and Nic Batum, not to mention rookie Brandon Boston, who erupted for 27 points against the Celtics earlier this month.
The Celtics’ night of inaccurate shooting can best be summed up by one sequence midway through the fourth quarter, when they were still within 4 points despite all of their misfires.
Brown’s open 3-pointer from the left corner thudded off the back rim, but Horford came up with a rebound and ended up with a three without a defender near him. His attempt was an air-ball.
Grant Williams grabbed this missed shot and fired a pass to Richardson, who also had plenty of time and space. His attempt caromed off the rim, too.
With Los Angeles leading, 82-78, Brown missed two more 3-pointers on Boston’s next two possessions and the Clippers stretched their lead to 86-78 before Brown and Robert Williams (16 points, 14 rebounds, including 10 offensive) scored inside to make it 86-82 with 1:08 left. The Clippers extended their lead with two free throws from Marcus Morris (team-high 23 points), and the next possession ended, appropriately, with two more missed 3-pointers by the Celtics.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.