With 40.3 seconds remaining in the Celtics’ 83-75 loss to the Miami Heat on Sunday, one fan stood and tried to shift the dour mood.
“Here we go, Patriots. Here we go!” he chanted.
Then he clapped twice. But no one really responded. It was partly because TD Garden had mostly emptied, as fans shuffled home to start making their Super Bowl bean dips, and it was partly because the Celtics’ listless performance had sapped the arena of energy.
Much of the afternoon was a reminder that the Celtics are clearly not the Patriots. They fell behind early, they fell behind quickly, and once again they fell behind by a lot.
This time, the deficit swelled to 15 points. Much like in the loss to the Rockets on Friday night, Boston clawed back. And just like against Houston, the run provided only fleeting joy.
Boston tied the score at 59 in the final minute of the third quarter, but it never held a lead and never made Miami reconsider its approach.
“We end up fighting back and using all our energy, and it’s almost too late by the time we get a few stops and we get the game close,” Celtics guard Avery Bradley said. “We put ourselves in a big hole and it’s hard to recover toward the end of the game. All our energy is gone.”
The slow starts are an obvious concern, and they are crystallized on the scoreboard more noticeably than streaks or ruts at other points in the game. But after this loss, Boston’s third in a row, coach Brad Stevens made it clear that focusing on poor beginnings masked a larger issue of consistently confounding stretches.
Stevens said that against the Heat, the Celtics were letting their offensive struggles seep into their defense, and that will always bother a coach more than a 3-pointer thudding off of a rim.
“When you miss the number of shots that we missed, I thought we let that affect how much we talked defensively,” Stevens said. “I could hear the silence, and that’s a bad thing when you’re trying to guard somebody.”
Bradley and Tyler Zeller had 17 points apiece to lead the Celtics, who shot just 37 percent from the floor and 11 for 18 from the foul line. Tayshaun Prince sat out because of a hip flexor injury.
Miami was led, once again, by Hassan Whiteside, who has been a revelation as the Heat find their way without the injured Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng. Whiteside’s winding journey has led him through the D-League, China, and Lebanon. But now he is with the Heat, and he will not be returning to Lebanon any time soon. The 7-footer finished with 20 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 blocks.
The Celtics shot 31 percent from the floor in the first half and trailed, 44-31. Stevens inserted guard Marcus Smart to start the third quarter, looking for a jolt of toughness and physicality.
The rookie played the entire period and dished out four assists without committing a turnover. The Celtics made their first seven shots of the third and tied the game at 59 in the final minute.
“I just tried to come out with a lot of energy we were lacking in the first half,” Smart said. “Coach told me I was starting in the second half, so I just tried to push the ball and push the tempo at both ends.”
The good vibes were short-lived, however, as Whiteside scored 6 points in Miami’s 8-0 burst to start the final quarter.
The Celtics made one last push, as Smart drained a 3-pointer with two minutes left and then had a steal with his team trailing, 80-74. But Bradley fumbled the ball moments later and ultimately stepped out of bounds. At the other end, Norris Cole’s 20-footer put the game away.
“In the second half we played hard defense, but it’s just too late,” Bradley said. “We have to do it the entire game.”