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If Celtics have indeed learned their lessons, they’re certainly not applying them

The urgency was missing from Jayson Tatum late in the game — again.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

I’m as late to this acknowledgment as the Celtics are at initiating their offense with a game on the line. But I can admit it now. Maybe you already have.

The Celtics are not going to deviate from their deep-seated bad habits in the playoffs, let alone break them altogether.

The best hope, the only hope, is that they can win in spite of them.

Celtics players have said repeatedly since back in October that they learned their lesson from last year’s postseason, when there was a direct correlation between their habit of blowing winnable playoff games and allowing series to last longer than they should, and their gas tank hitting empty in their Finals loss to the Warriors.


Maybe they did learn those lessons. But Sunday’s 116-115 overtime loss to the Sixers in Game 4 was the latest evidence that learning such lessons and actually applying them at the proper time in the game are two separate tasks.

Marcus Smart and the Celtics were knocked off balance at the end of Game 4. Will they be able to rebound in Game 5?Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Game 4 was so close to becoming the kind of victory that would be guaranteed to make a Celtics fan smile at any future recollection. They were lethargic early — main culprit Jayson Tatum missed his first eight shots — and eventually fell behind by 16 points.

They entered the fourth quarter still down by 9, but Tatum found his groove, the defense hit the turbo button, and they rallied back to seize a 5-point lead with a little more than two minutes left in regulation before the Sixers recovered to force overtime.

With 38.1 seconds left in overtime, Tatum buried a 3-pointer over Tyrese Maxey to give the Celtics a 115-113 lead. Had the Celtics been able to hold serve from there, the shot would have stood not just as further proof of Tatum’s resilience, but as evidence that he’s learning how to play his best in the biggest moments.


Instead, those lousy old habits got them again. And their two All-Stars and their stubborn and inexperienced coach were complicit.

In the final 26 seconds, still holding that 2-point lead, Jaylen Brown committed a breathtakingly boneheaded play on defense, Tatum downshifted into casual mode at the worst possible time on offense, and the game got too fast for Joe Mazzulla yet again. And so the Celtics come home to TD Garden tied at 2-2 rather than seizing a 3-1 lead and the Sixers’ spirit.

There’s a lot to vent about from those final seconds, but let’s start with Brown. His decision to abandon James Harden — who, after dismal performances in Games 2 and 3, got cooking in Game 4, having hit 15 of 22 shots for 39 points when the fateful play happened — showed a complete lack of situational awareness and basketball sense. It is the kind of aggressively misguided decision one would have expected out of, say, Aaron Nesmith two years ago, not from an All-NBA-caliber player in his seventh season.

Anyone with any basketball sense knows that there are two things you cannot do in that situation: 1. Give up an open three. 2. Foul a shooter (especially Joel Embiid) and allow for an and-1 opportunity. If the Sixers score 2 points, the Celtics still would have been tied with the ball and plenty of time to (theoretically) get a good shot.


So what does Brown do? He leaves the sizzling Harden to double Embiid, who did the right and only thing. He kicked it out to Harden, who contrary to his performances in Games 2 and 3 does shoot better than Ben Simmons. He knocked down the winning three.

Brown took accountability for his blunder, but so what? There was no reason to try to make that play. It was a different kind of hero ball, gambling when the situation required nothing more than common sense.

Brown’s double-team was worse than Tatum’s decision to treat the chance at a winning shot like a leisurely Sunday stroll. But that final possession was a pig’s breakfast.

Jaylen Brown's late-game gaffe doomed Boston at the end of Game 4.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Tatum is a wonderful player, but he’s almost always a main culprit in the Celtics’ pace issues in the fourth quarter, and he was at fault in multiple ways on the final possession.

The Celtics got the ball back with 18.2 seconds left. Marcus Smart brought it up as if they had all the time in the world and passed off to Tatum with 8 seconds on the clock. Tatum didn’t begin to attack, after a Derrick White screen, until there were just 5 seconds left. It was inexplicable, and yet not unfamiliar; the Celtics have a habit of letting the clock tick down way too far before attacking.

Both Maxey and Tobias Harris stayed with Tatum on the screen. Tatum had a half-step on them, but rather than pulling up and shooting over Maxey or passing to the wide-open White at the top of the key, he drove too deep, saw the imposing Embiid, and kicked it out to Marcus Smart, who drilled a three a split-second after the clock had expired.


Mazzulla likes to say hindsight is 20/20, but is it too much to ask for some foresight from the coach in that situation? I’m fine with not calling a timeout to set up a play initially. But when it became clear that the players’ decision to saunter into the play was going to result in a rushed shot and a prayer, Mazzulla should have used a timeout with 9 or so seconds left, when Smart was dribbling with no purpose.

Trusting his players is fine, to a point. But when it’s apparent that they’re in the midst of making a bad decision, it’s on him to take a timeout, reset, and put them in a position to make a good decision.

Maybe he’ll realize that going forward. It would be nice if someone affiliated with this team — a championship contender in spite of itself — eventually applied a lesson learned.

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Chad Finn can be reached at Follow him @GlobeChadFinn.