SACRAMENTO — During the Celtics’ powerful 10-game winning streak, there were several games in which they were not perfect, or anywhere close to it, really. They often fell behind by large deficits. They often needed late-game heroics.
But time and again, they found a way to scrap and claw and win anyway, and there are benefits to that. On Sunday, Boston erased a 13-point deficit and put itself in a position to win, and when Marcus Smart drove into the lane and lofted a high-arcing 12-footer just before the buzzer, there was a sense that this ball would find its way through a net, because that’s how the charmed start to this season has gone.
Smart’s shot bounced off the front of the rim, and then caromed off the backboard, and then landed on the front of the rim again, and it stayed there. It stayed there for so long that three players from Boston’s bench actually came onto the court, leaning and crouching and trying to coax the ball through the hoop.
Instead, the ball rolled off. Some Celtics winced or put their hands on their hips or looked toward the floor. As the Kings streaked onto the court to celebrate, Smart put both hands on his head and walked away.
“The ball felt like it sat on the rim forever,” Smart said.
If that one shot had gone in, the talk afterward would have been about an 11-game winning streak that had no clear end in sight. Instead, it missed, and the talk afterward shifted toward some of the flaws that the Celtics may have been masking as the wins piled up.
They fell behind by 13 points with another quiet start. Coach Brad Stevens continued to tinker and tweak his bench rotations, looking for one that would click. And the Celtics stared at an immediate future that will unfold without Gordon Hayward, who is expected to miss about five more weeks because of a broken left hand.
Stevens was asked afterward whether, considering Boston’s uneven play recently, a loss could be a good way to reset and make his players understand there areas in which they must improve. But he said it would not, because he and his staff look at a game’s missteps the same way regardless of a final result.
Some of the players said that some positives can be taken from looking back at the good habits and confidence the team formed during this surprising early surge. Although Smart acknowledged that perhaps a minor setback can have benefits, too.
“Even though we don’t want to lose, it’s a good loss for us,” he said. “It kind of brings us back down to earth and we’ve got to get back to work.”
Walker faced consistent double-teams and scored just 15 points and was held without a 3-pointer for the first time this season. He did register a season-high nine assists and consistently looked to make the right play rather than forcing what was not there, as evidenced by his decision to kick the ball out to Smart on the final possession. But it did not quite work out this time.
Jaylen Brown had 18 points to lead the Celtics, and Daniel Theis added 14 points and 10 rebounds.
The Celtics defense, meanwhile, had no real answer for Buddy Hield. The sharpshooter poured in a game-high 35 points on 14-of-24 shooting. He drilled several tough, well-contested shots in the fourth quarter that left Boston little choice but to tip its cap. But the Celtics believed that a couple of early uncontested looks they ceded allowed Hield to build the confidence he needed to crush them in the moments that mattered most.
“A player like that, he gets going early, sees a few go in, he starts to see more,” Brown said. “He made some tough shots down the stretch, some really good shots. And when we play them again we’ll challenge him to make those shots again, but kudos to him.”
Hield beat a double-team for a tough baseline jumper that gave Sacramento a 98-97 lead with 1:06 left in the fourth quarter before Boston moved back in front when Walker fed Theis for a lay-in.
Walker had a chance to extend the lead but missed a 15-footer with 17.3 seconds left. Smart grabbed the rebound and missed a putback and was called for a foul on the rebound.
Richaun Holmes hit a pair of free throws with 13.3 seconds left to make it 100-99. Instead of calling a timeout, the Celtics let Walker dribble upcourt and look for another big play in another big moment.
He made the right one by finding Smart after facing a double-team in the right corner, but the result was not the one that Boston had become accustomed to during its 10-game run.
“I thought it was going in,” Smart said. “I think everybody thought it was going in, and it just rolled out.”