MIAMI — The recurring theme with these rebuilding Celtics is that, for all their struggles and shortcomings, they put forth an impressive effort in almost every game that, at the very least, gives them a chance to win.
More simply: they just play hard, as their players say — and as every opposing coach who has faced them this season has said.
But the Celtics have little to show for any of it, and that was the case again after their 93-86 loss to the Miami Heat Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
“We’re tired of moral victories around here,” said forward Jared Sullinger, who had 12 points and 11 rebounds. “We always say we play hard, we’re building toward something, but we’re tired of it. We want to win.”
The loss was Celtics’ 15th in 17 games, and their season-high 10th consecutive road defeat, dropping them to 5-17 away from home this season.
They’re now 14-29, with the fourth-worst record in the NBA, and those facts were hard to escape even after they gave the Heat a tough game despite playing most of it without starting guard Avery Bradley, who left in the first half with a sprained ankle.
“I’m not really into moral victories,” said forward Kris Humphries, who finished with another strong outing, 14 points and 13 rebounds. “We want to win games. There’s still frustration there.”
After trailing by as much as 18, the Celtics took an 86-84 lead on a dunk by Humphries with 3:08 left in the fourth quarter.
What happened next?
“LeBron James happened,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
James scored 7 of his game-high 29 points in the final 2:32, all of them on free throws, and the Heat (30-12) ended the game on a 9-0 run to close out the Celtics.
“I just think LeBron got a bunch of calls down the stretch, and we expect things like that,” said Celtics forward Brandon Bass, who finished with a team-high 15 points off the bench. “We just wish we could’ve kept him off the line.”
James shot 9 for 11 from the line, all in the fourth quarter.
The Celtics also received no help from guard Rajon Rondo, who, in his third game back after missing nearly a year following a knee injury, struggled mightily.
Rondo played 25 minutes 43 seconds, the most since he returned, but he missed all eight of his field goal attempts, the most he has ever missed without a made field goal in an NBA game. He also shot 1 for 4 from the line.
“I don’t have any excuses,” said Rondo, who also had 5 assists and 3 rebounds. “I just couldn’t find a way to put the ball in the rim.”
Rondo’s 1-point game was his lowest scoring game since he was scoreless April 26, 2012 vs. Milwaukee.
The Celtics’ took another hit in the second quarter when Bradley sprained his right ankle while guarding Miami guard Mario Chalmers.
Bradley, who has started all 43 games this season, left and did not return. The Celtics were already without guard Jerryd Bayless, who was sidelined with a sprained left big toe, so they needed some help, fast.
Enter Chris Johnson. The former D-League player whom the Celtics signed to a 10-day contract last Friday made his debut in a tight game against a tough team, and he responded with 11 points in nearly 25 minutes off the bench.
Johnson scored 5 points in the fourth quarter as the Celtics were making their comeback, and he had a nice assist to Humphries on the dunk that gave the Celtics their first lead.
At one point in the fourth quarter, Rondo checked back in and Johnson, who went undrafted out of Dayton in 2012, thought he was coming out.
But that wasn’t the case. The Celtics wanted him on the floor.
“I was kind of surprised I stayed in,” he said.
“That shows the confidence that coach has in me tonight. I was thankful for that opportunity.”
Stevens was glad to give it to him.
“Man, he was really good tonight,” Stevens said.
The Celtics weren’t good at the beginning, as they missed 13 of their first 15 shots and had as many baskets as turnovers at the end of the first quarter (6).
They trailed by as much as 18 with 7:28 in the second quarter, and it looked as though the Heat might skate to a blowout win.
“The first six minutes of the game, we were trying to figure out of we can be successful of not,” Stevens said. “I thought that we were way too tentative. We weren’t playing with a sense of urgency.”
But the Celtics fought back with a 13-2 run, and trailed, 51-40, at halftime. In the third quarter, they outscored the Heat, 27-20, to make it 71-67 entering the fourth. It was neck and neck from there.
“I thought the last 42 minutes, we fought,” Stevens said. “We fought about as hard as they can fight.”
The Celtics are good at fighting, just not at winning, and, at the end of the day, all their moral victories from hard-fought games do little to help heal the pain of all their hard-fought losses, which continue to pile up, game after game.
Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.