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GARY WASHBURN | ON BASKETBALL

Trail of frustration follows another stunning Celtics’ loss

Celtics coach Brad Stevens was dumbfounded by his team’s miserable performance against the Clippers in the second half Saturday night.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens was dumbfounded by his team’s miserable performance against the Clippers in the second half Saturday night.(BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)

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Let’s say this first: This was the most embarrassing regular-season loss of the Brad Stevens era, leading by 28 late in the first half, against a team with a patchwork lineup, that just traded its best player, only to lose by 11.

The Celtics were pathetic in the second half Saturday at TD Garden. The fans began booing once the Clippers got within 10 and never stopped.

Mentally strong teams don’t lose 28-point leads two days after losing an 18-point lead. The Lakers’ loss could be attributed to a streak of unexpectedly hot 3-point shooting and a fortunate bounce and shot by Rajon Rondo.

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Saturday had nothing to do with the opponent. The Celtics wilted under the pressure of keeping a big lead because they expected the Clippers to fold and they didn’t. The front-runners made the first two punches, staggered their opponent, and then ran into the corner when the opponent responded.

It’s pretty easy to figure this out. The Celtics’ aren’t scaring anybody in the East after their 123-112 loss. They have the talent to make a long playoff run, but not the fortitude.

When shots stop falling, the defense falters. In the fourth quarter, they stopped guarding the 3-point line, and Landry Shamet (a rookie in his first game with the Clippers) and Patrick Beverley (known for his defense and not shooting) combined for six 3-pointers. All of them open.

It was ridiculous. The Celtics forgot all their defensive principles. They were scared. They knew they could be caught and, once the Clippers started making baskets, they tensed up and refused to respond to the challenge. And when the moment grew bigger, the Celtics tried hero ball. Such as Marcus Smart, who after missing his past six 3-pointers over two games, decided to launch a pull-up 3 with the Celtics down 2 with 2:06 left.

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He missed. The Clippers raced the ball up the floor, and Smart tried to draw a charge against Montrezl Harrell but left his man Beverley in the corner for an open three. Swish.

Brad Stevens’s comments after the game were interesting. He lauded the Clippers for their teamwork and togetherness despite it being the first game with the team for four of them.

“They played very together,” Stevens said. “They played off of actions. They played very free after that first quarter and, to their credit, they found a great enthusiasm together. This whole year they’ve played with such great teamness, resolve. You don’t come back from 20-point deficits if you don’t really like each other and really pull for each other. I think those guys show that night after that.”

So that begged the question, do the Celtics really like each other?

“We’ve done that [come back from big deficits] the last two years,” Stevens said. “It’s been a good thing of our team. That was a notice of their personnel and their group. I don’t want that taken out of context. Ultimately, we certainly got tense and tight on the offensive end of the court as they were coming back.”

Meanwhile in the Celtics’ locker room, forward Marcus Morris made some stirring comments about the lack of team chemistry and togetherness, and pointedly said teammates aren’t supporting each other as much as they could.

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The Clippers played together despite trades and subsequent upheaval. The Celtics made no trades and looked as disjointed and detached as if it were their first day of training camp. Players were running into each other on offense. Other guys were afraid to take shots. Others, so upset about missed shots, they missed defensive assignment.

How else would you explain getting outscored 70-38 in the second half? The Celtics can’t blame some stellar individual performance. The Clippers battered with teamwork. Four Clippers scored in double figures in the second half and eight did it overall.

“We got out of our game plan,” Terry Rozier said. “It’s history from there. We can practice all we want. If the effort is not there . . . we’re playing against pros, anybody can score the ball. If the effort’s not there, then we’re out of luck.”

The Celtics will take Sunday off to do some much-needed soul searching, and also find out if Kyrie Irving’s knee injury, which cost him the second half, is going to cost him extensive time.

Stevens understandably thought his team had enough to hold a 21-point halftime lead, but it couldn’t. Once again, the Celtics played a lousy third and an even worst fourth when they allowed 42 points. The problems with this team are much deeper than execution or strategy changes.

The Celtics have to figure out if they do truly like each other, and whether they do desire team success more than personal success. Elite teams aren’t this mentally weak. They don’t shatter at the sight of adversity. This was masked in the Lakers’ loss because Los Angeles went 3-point crazy in the second half.

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On Saturday, the Celtics were outclassed by a more cohesive and more passionate team, and that’s way more discouraging than a buzzer-beater loss. The Celtics lacked heart and toughness. So what are they going to do about that?


Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.