ORLANDO — Kyrie Irving sat at his locker with both legs wrapped in large ice packs, and he stared straight ahead. His teammates came out of the showers and got dressed and left, and Irving just sat there. He’d scroll through his phone and then put it down and stare some more.
More than a half-hour earlier, Irving had stood near midcourt with 2.9 seconds left and the Celtics trailing the Magic by 2 points, certain that he could win the game, or at least send it to overtime if given the chance. His hope was that Gordon Hayward’s inbounds pass would come to Al Horford, and then Irving would streak in and receive a short pass or handoff and take care of the rest.
But Hayward spotted Jayson Tatum curling off of a screen and fired a pass to him. The second-year wing took one dribble and launched an 18-footer from a tough angle that caromed off the rim, giving Orlando a 105-103 win.
Before Tatum had even taken the shot, though, Irving’s frustration was visible, as he remained near midcourt and held his hands in the air with his palms to the sky. After the miss, it was even more visible, as he walked toward Hayward, grimacing, and animatedly wondered why he had not thrown the ball to Horford.
Long after that play, long after his teammates had departed the locker room, Irving did not really want to expand on his clear frustration with the game’s end. Earlier, Hayward acknowledged it for him.
“I think he would have liked for me to pass it to Al and have him cut off of it,” Hayward said. “You know, it was late clock, and we’ve worked on that play before and I’ve seen [Tatum] hit that in practice countless times, so I felt like it was a good shot.”
Although Irving declined to go into detail about what had bothered him about that moment, he was less reluctant to discuss the overall state of the team. With 40 games remaining, the Celtics remain mired in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, six games behind the first-place Raptors.
There is still plenty of time to climb, or at least build momentum heading into the postseason, but with each loss like Saturday’s, it appears increasingly likely that Boston’s route through the playoffs will offer sizable challenges.
Irving was asked after the game to identify the source of Boston’s mercurial season. As he has so often this year, he blamed the team’s lack of experience.
“And because of that, we have a lot of learning to do,” he said. “So we have a lot of ground to make up in that aspect. It gets tough. When it gets hard, you’ve got to think. You’ve got to do the right things. You can’t gamble and think that it’s going to be the winning play.”
He added later: “What’s the big picture? What are we doing here? These are things I don’t think some of my teammates have faced of just every single day. It’s not easy to be great. So the things you’re doing, that you’ve done your entire career of being able to coast by in certain situations and you’ve gotten away with your youth and stuff like that, being on a championship ball club, you can’t get away with that.”
Irving scored 15 of his team-high 25 points in the fourth quarter, despite playing just 7 minutes, 47 seconds in the period. He appeared intent on willing his team to a comeback win, but in the end he was not afforded the final chance.
Aaron Gordon finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds to lead Orlando, which clawed back from a 12-point third-quarter deficit. Terrence Ross added 25 points, 18 of which came after halftime. Gordon, a 68-percent free throw shooter, was 13 for 13 from the lone, while the Celtics were just 19 for 28 as a team.
Orlando was hardly perfect, making just 28.9 percent of its 3-pointers and committing 15 turnovers. But it walloped the Celtics with a 64-point second-half and kept a crowd filled with large pockets of Boston fans from shifting the mood.
The Magic led by 9 with less than two minutes left when Irving brought Boston back at the foul line. He was fouled on a 3-pointer, hit a free throw after Orlando fouled before the ball was inbounded, and then added two more with 33.5 seconds left to pull Boston within 104-101. After a Magic turnover with 13.6 seconds left, Orlando elected to foul Irving on purpose rather than allow him to potentially tie the game with a 3-pointer.
Irving hit two more free throws with 10.2 seconds left. After a timeout, Evan Fournier had the ball knocked away and there was a brief scramble before Fournier recovered it and found Nikola Vucevic, who was fouled with 3.2 seconds remaining. He hit the first and missed the second, but in the end, the Celtics were unable to capitalize, and Irving was left with his hands in the air.
“We’re better than most teams in this league,” he said. “It’s just going out and proving it every single night and demanding it and actually showing it. So until we do that every single night and realize our depth is a positive, and all the wishes and could-haves and should-have-done-that, once that goes out the window, then we’ll be better. But until then, we’re going to keep having these ups and downs.”