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It’s mind-boggling that the Celtics can’t seem to beat a zone defense, and that’s why they lost Friday

With the Celtics down by a point in the final 10 seconds, Jayson Tatum fired a contested 3-pointer. The miss ended up their last, best shot to salvage a win against visiting Portland.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

In this disheartening season, nothing is certain with these Celtics, not even an 11-point lead with 6 minutes left. So when Portland guard CJ McCollum hit a pair of jumpers to cut the Celtics lead to 6, there was a collective ‘uh-oh’ in TD Garden.

The Celtics began pressing and passing the ball around an aggressive Portland zone, hoping someone would make a play, hit a shot, relieve this pressure, and save a collapsing franchise.

Again, it never happened. The Celtics choked another double-digit fourth-quarter lead , relenting to a bunch of Trail Blazers who seemingly knew they could catch their vulnerable opponent. They just needed to keep playing, keep defending, and the mistakes would come. The Celtics would botch scoring opportunities, commit silly fouls, miss defensive assignments.


The 109-105 loss is a microcosm of what has been an infuriating season for a franchise that’s been mired in mediocrity for nearly two years.

After the game, the Celtics didn’t exit the locker room for several minutes, stunned they again lost a winnable game, blowing their seventh fourth-quarter lead in the past 32 days.

They are still clueless against a zone defense, which is mystifying since it’s considered a gadget defense at this level because professionals usually know how to handle it after a few possessions.

Not the Celtics. It’s as if they’re trying to escape Jurassic Park in the middle of the night. The players looked completely confused by the attacking defense, and instead of whipping the ball around to find the open man, they dribbled and passed in desperation.

The result was no baskets in the final 7:19.

“The shooting is a part of it,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “We’ve seen it quite a bit this year. And the ball can’t just move around the perimeter. You have to attack. That’s the bottom line. They forced a lot of jump shots. That’s on me to get us in the situation to get the proper looks out of zone. We’ve seen quite a bit. Charlotte did some (zone) and we scored two, three times in a row and they jumped out of it.


“It’s a make or miss thing. If you can (make) wide-open zone shots, teams get out of it. But if you miss those, they’ll stay in it. Our execution wasn’t as sharp as it needs to be.”

Once again, Udoka is waiting for a team to hit open shots that hasn’t proven it can consistently hit open shots all season. And as long as the Celtics can’t hit open outside shots, teams will employ zones and the Celtics will look like a Pop Warner team playing against the ‘85 Chicago Bears.

Portland ended the game on a 20-5 run, the capper a corner 3-pointer by Robert Covington to give the Blazers a 103-102 lead. Covington had been a complete non-factor, playing 37 minutes and missing both of his shots.

Yet, the Celtics find themselves in these unlucky situations because it’s as if they don’t know what to do when they prosper. Grant Williams scored a layup with 7:19 left for a 100-89 Boston lead and Portland, in the fifth game of a six-game road trip, appeared ready to relent.

Except, the Celtics responded by missing a 3-pointer and committing two turnovers. McCollum then responded with his buckets.


Again, the fourth-quarter offensive execution was nonexistent. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were 1-for-8 shooting in the final period. And Tatum tried saving the Celtics with a stepback contested 3-pointer down 1 point with 6.7 seconds left.

It was a hero shot and exemplifies desperation in so many instances. Tatum was trying to save his team from embarrassment, snap a streak of 19 consecutive 3-point misses, and prove he can beat a zone with a shot he practices hundreds of times per day.

But with the Celtics fortune this season, that shot had no chance of going through the basket. It rimmed out and Tatum was left in a befuddling shooting skid and his team completely unsure how to close out games.

Robert Williams was less than pleased when he was whistled for a foul in the third quarter.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

“Earlier in the year it felt like (here we go again) a little bit,” Udoka said. “We got a little tight. I don’t feel like that’s been the case in the last 10 or so games. I feel like we’ve improved and had some tight games against Chicago and Indiana that we pulled out and that’s why this one stings a little bit more. It’s not early in the season where we haven’t seen these things. We had been adjusting into doing better lately.”

Tatum, who led Boston with 27 points but missed all six of his 3-point attempts, said he still believes the Celtics can salvage the season. They are one game under. 500 with 35 games left and appear no closer to curing their ills as they were a month ago.


“It hurts and it bothers you, as it should,” he said. “Can’t go back in time. Get back in the gym, watch some film, learn from your mistakes, and try to improve on them. That’s literally all you can do. We just gotta stay healthy and put a run together. We’ve had some bad losses but we’ve beat the best teams.”

But a discouraging cloud is hovering over this team that appears to be getting bigger as the season progresses. Nearly 50 games in and the Celtics still can’t break a zone defense or score consistently down the stretch or hold a lead. So in reality, Friday’s result wasn’t all that surprising.

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.