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Gary Washburn | On basketball

Celtics have an opening at closer

The Celtics would like Jeff Green, who scored 19 points on Friday night, to be their go-to scorer in the fourth quarter.Mark L. Baer/USA Today Sports

You can call these growing pains if you want, these close losses, watching other teams’ closers do their job while you have a bunch of eighth-inning setup men. Eventually, the Celtics are going to have to find a closer, someone who can get to the free throw line, impose his will and score in the final seconds.

With the Celtics trailing by 1 point and with seven seconds left against the mighty Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night at TD Garden, Rajon Rondo ended up with the ball. And in the halfcourt, Rondo tends to take his time. He is better pushing the ball on the break. But this time he was forced to make a play.


Rondo dribbled down the seconds, then had the ball roll up his arm. He lost the handle and lost track of the game clock, firing a jumper well past the buzzer. While it was another excruciating loss for a growing Celtics team — three of their five losses are by a combined 9 points — it also highlighted Boston’s lack of a proven late-game scorer.

Life was so easy for Rondo way back when. During the Big Three Era, his late-game options were Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen. Pierce was usually the chosen one, and even though his stepback missed more than half the time, he had enough court sense to get it off in time.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens said the final play was designed for Jeff Green, whom the Celtics faithful have been practically begging to take the mantle of primary scorer for the past two years. On the final play, Green was supposed to be guarded by Shawn Marion, but Kyrie Irving astutely called for a switch before the inbounds pass, and LeBron James moved to Green.

While Rondo dribbled, Green ran toward the right corner, and in the waning seconds he jogged toward Rondo. He was far too tardy. The Celtics lost because no one stepped up as a viable option for Rondo, and with the Celtics in the bonus, James wasn’t blanketing Green, wary of the backdoor, allowing Green to roam toward the perimeter.


The Celtics finished the game without even trying to throw for the end zone. They lack someone who can make plays when it counts, which is one of the most difficult skills to learn in the NBA. Pierce learned that, so did Allen and Garnett. They were veterans, unafraid of the challenge.

“Jeff was the first look over the top,” Stevens said of the final play. “For whatever reason, we didn’t think it was there and it may not have been there, I’ll go back and watch it. And Rondo isolated on a rookie [Joe Harris] on the right wing. I felt pretty good when he got the ball reversed to him and again, give Joe Harris a lot of credit. I told Rondo those plays start with me and I’ll be responsible for that one.”

Said Rondo: “It varies each game. Whatever Coach draws up, that’s what we go with.”

The evolution of the Celtics has to include finding clutch players, but that process has been slow. The Celtics had seven scorers in double figures but the nine players who saw the floor in the final quarter combined for 20 points.

That’s why it’s so difficult for the Celtics to beat superior teams, even when they outplay them. The Cavaliers have at least two premium closers: Irving and James. Irving is a score-first point guard who can take anybody in the league off the dribble, even stellar defensive guard Avery Bradley, who was on skates most of the night.


James can just bull his way to the basket, immune to slap fouls and fierce at the basket. When the Cavaliers were behind as many as 19 in the final quarter, James or Irving handled the ball each possession. They combined for 11 of the 18 Cleveland shots and 10 of the team’s 17 fourth-quarter free throws.

Closers draw fouls. They put teams in penalties. The Cavaliers spent the last 8:40 in the bonus after four quick fouls, two of those against Irving. So Cleveland was able to score points with the clock stopped and then the Celtics couldn’t aggressively defend in the final minutes for fear of fouling.

“Really hard, obviously you don’t want to foul that much early,” Stevens said. “Because every time they got fouled on the shot, they were shooting, obviously.”

When asked about the issue in the fourth quarter, Evan Turner summed it up succinctly.

“Obviously they put the ball in their best players’ hands and made a couple of great shots, you know?” he said. “We’ve probably need to do a better job of somewhat executing a little bit. We have to do a better job at controlling the game. We’ve got to keep growing.”


Gary Washburn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.