The moment of truth arrived. Rajon Rondo stole the ball from Paul Pierce as he was about to attempt a tying 3-pointer. Rondo approached the basket and had his potential game-clinching layup swatted off the backboard by Kris Humphries. It quickly was ruled goaltending.
Humphries, a former Celtic, immediately began circling with his index finger to suggest that officials review the play. The Celtics' bench knew the call would be reversed, meaning a jump ball at center court with a 25-point lead now whittled down to 3 with 1:30 left.
Washington won the tip and John Wall soared to the basket for a layup, and the TD Garden faithful sighed in disbelief.
The Wizards, a contender in the Eastern Conference, were ready to restore order after a sleepy early Sunday afternoon.
And the Celtics looked fried when Avery Bradley's 3-point attempt rimmed in and then spun out with 1:05 left and a 1-point lead.
It was the season in a nutshell. The Celtics play well enough through three quarters to win, but are short of luck and execution down the stretch. Teams realize the Celtics lack these winning characteristics and take advantage.
Sunday was different.
After Pierce missed a 3-pointer from the elbow, Rondo pushed it again, deciding against the sticky half-court offense that has caused so many issues. He found Jeff Green, who found Bradley again in the corner for a shot that could perhaps invigorate a team that needs as much positive reinforcement as possible.
Bradley caught the ball on the fly and released.
Celtics win, 101-93. The nearly blown lead is an afterthought, replaced by self-assurance after they made plays that wouldn't have occurred two weeks ago.
The Celtics likely wouldn't have pushed the pace down the stretch. They would have become more tentative in the waning minutes because of fear of making mistakes. They wouldn't have been so aggressive defensively, using Tyler Zeller at the head of a zone that stopped ageless Rasual Butler from launching open 3-pointers.
Instead of waiting for the Wizards to catch and pass them, the Celtics decided to determine their fate. And it worked. There are going to be more blown leads and fourth-quarter slippage, but for one of the few times this season, the Celtics decided to win — or lose — being themselves.
"We played gutsy at the end," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "Rondo's pass to Jeff on the break was gutsy. Avery's shot was gutsy and he made a huge, huge shot. And I thought our defense in the [late-game situations] was good."
The Celtics still allowed 34 points in the fourth quarter, but 17 of those were scored in the first 2:57 of the period. In the last 9:03, the Wizards were 7 for 20 from the field and Butler hit just one 3-pointer after making three in the first 1:27.
It wasn't a perfect fourth-quarter performance, but it didn't have to be because the Celtics gave themselves such a large margin for error with three sparkling periods.
The Celtics are a front-running team. They hit first. They draw blood. And they don't have to finish as strongly, just as long as they have enough guile to finish.
"We have to do what we do to get the lead," Rondo said. "We're growing and this shows that we're growing. In the past couple of games, games that we blew the leads, we lost the game. [Sunday] we blew the lead again, but we stayed confident and made plays."
Stevens has increased the pace of the offense this season. The Celtics scored 101 points despite shooting just 40.9 percent. They averaged 23.3 shot attempts through the first three quarters, but attempted just 18 in the fourth.
But unlike previous games, when Rondo pounded the ball and waited for Bradley or Green to come off screens, they pushed the pace and created easy baskets, or at least open attempts, in Bradley's case.
"I was thinking, 'What the hell, let it fly,' " Stevens said of Bradley's 3-pointer. "We talk about playing with tempo and taking the first good shot, well, let it go.
"Let's say that we pull it back out and we hold it and we take a contested shot late because their defense is turned up a notch . . . Fading a little but in the corner and off one foot, that's not exactly how you draw it up but hey, maybe we should draw it up that way."
The opponent will be the same Monday as the Celtics traveled Sunday to Washington for the rematch. The Celtics have won three consecutive games, but this victory carries much more significance than the previous two because it came against one of the league's more talented teams.
The learning process is painstaking with this team. November was brutal, but the confidence slowly is beginning to build. The blown lead was blown off. The fact the Celtics maintained their personality and it resulted in a victory was Sunday's lesson.
"We made a lot of great, winning plays," swingman Evan Turner said. "We kept cracking at it. The goaltending was tough but we still bounced back. As a team we stayed together.
"It's a learning process on top of a little bit of luck, too. Sometimes the ball just [has] to bounce the right way."