ORLANDO — The beginning of the second half was eerily reminiscent of July games played about 70 yards from the court at Amway Center.
Players on the Celtics bench were cheering every positive play as if it was the Orlando Summer Pro League, where players trying to make training camp rosters spend 40 minutes bubbling with enthusiasm to make impressions on NBA teams.
It has been reduced to this point. The Celtics were beyond lethargic in the first half, yet again. Brad Stevens made a lineup change and the bench players just encouraged their brethren to do anything favorable, a defensive stop, closing out on a shooter, an offensive rebound.
The home crowd was quiet, making those loud claps following a Celtics bucket piercing. It was the first sign of enthusiasm from a group that was listless in the first half. The Celtics trailed by 23 at the break, with some players looking as if they were ready for a day off and a Christmas feast.
As the enthusiasm increased and the Celtics began to play harder, they rallied, using a stunning 27-3 run to come back within 3, but they needed to be perfect in the final three minutes and weren’t, dropping a confounding 100-95 decision to the Magic on Tuesday night.
Stevens was hardly buoyed by the rally, which did not include Jared Sullinger (benched for the second half) and Jeff Green (benched in the third and did not play again). When Green was pulled for Evan Turner with 3:50 left in the third and the Celtics trailing, 74-55, he sat on the bench with his head leaning on his right hand. Teammate Jae Crowder walked by and patted him on the head in encouragement.
The combination of Green and Sullinger were 2-for-11 shooting with 4 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 turnovers in 35 combined minutes. Stevens’ message to them was clear, lack of emotion or passion will get you benched, even if he didn’t say it in so many words.
“Obviously, we need Sully to play well for us to be a good team,” Stevens said. “I’ve got to do a better job of helping to put him and Jeff in better spots.”
The impetus of the Celtics’ fourth-quarter rally was one of their worst quarters in the Stevens era. They missed 20 of 22 shots in the first quarter, including 0 for 7 from Sullinger and Green. The starters went a combined 1 for 14 as the Celtics trailed, 26-9, 5 of those points came on free throws from Marcus Smart.
While the Magic offered resistance defensively, it was apparent they were playing with more desperation, much like the Hornets and Knicks did two weeks ago when they beat the Celtics. The Celtics looked uninterested in stretches, jogging down the court after missed shots, missing defensive assignments, and allowing Magic players to shoot from desired positions.
In one second-quarter stretch, Ben Gordon scored on midrange jumpers on three consecutive possessions off the dribble. Finally, after a Phil Pressey pass was knocked down by Channing Frye, the Magic went on a practice-like fastbreak that saw the 6-foot-11-inch Frye beat the Celtics down the floor, fill the middle of the lane, and feed Evan Fournier for a layup. It was 40-15 and Stevens called a timeout, appearing flabbergasted.
When asked about his team’s effort, Stevens said: “Not as good as theirs. I think that’s fair. They were clearly desperate out of the gate. Obviously in the fourth quarter they got on their heels a little bit. That [rally] was fool’s gold at the end.”
Kelly Olnyk’s 3-pointer cut the deficit to 90-87 with 2:34 left. But after Tobias Harris forced a midrange jumper that bounced in, the Celtics then fouled Kyle O’Quinn twice away from the ball. On one of those fouls, Olynyk was called for pulling down the Magic center after missing a 3-point attempt.
O’Quinn hit all four free throws and the Celtics had two consecutive empty possessions, ruining the rally. Still, the players were left to ponder why they had to be reduced to such heroics for a win against a team they beat soundly seven days ago.
“I think we have to get our communication level back up,” said swingman Turner, who finished with 3 points on 1-for-6 shooting. “There’s no reason for us not to be physical defensively. When you get physical defensively, we’re a tough team to beat. The Magic came out fired up and it definitely made it tough.”
Sullinger left the locker room before reporters were allowed in while Green did not speak with reporters.
In the three games since the Rajon Rondo trade, Green is averaging 11.8 points, shooting 38.7 percent, and averaging 3.3 rebounds. Tyler Zeller, perhaps the bright spot of the season, led the Celtics in scoring for the second consecutive game with 22 points in 30 minutes on 6-for-9 shooting while sinking all 10 free throws.
The issue for Stevens is searching for the right combinations on a given night. He didn’t discover a solution until the fourth quarter, when the Celtics didn’t have enough time to compensate for their first three apathetic frames.
“We just played a lot harder [in the fourth quarter],” point guard Jameer Nelson said. “There is no reason for us and our youth to come out and not play aggressive and not play together. This team will be together for a long time with the youth that have and the coach that we have.”