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The Celtics’ shabby play of late finally caught up to them

Jayson Tatum scored 14 points in 30 minutes of playing time against the Kings. His play recently has been inconsistent. Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press/Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — The question Celtics fans will be asking themselves as they ponder the 100-99 loss Sunday to the Sacramento Kings is whether the lesson would have served the same purpose had Marcus Smart’s floater rolled in at the buzzer.

Smart was trying to save the Celtics after a second consecutive shabby performance when he lofted a 13-footer into the air in the final seconds. The ball hung on the rim for what seemed like minutes, before rolling off and giving the beleaguered Kings a much-needed win.

The Celtics knew they didn’t play a complete game, something that also occurred Friday at Golden State. They got off to another slow start but used strong defense and some timely shooting to take a 95-91 lead with a 2:58 left.


That final 178 seconds was an example of what can happen when you don’t play the first 45 minutes and 2 seconds the right way. The Celtics fell behind by double digits again and then clawed back to take the lead, but defensively they were never cohesive, especially against Sacramento sharpshooter Buddy Hield.

Hield finished with 35 points. Allowed to get untracked early, his long-range shooting ruined many effective defensive possessions with his quick release and pure shooting stroke. He hit seven 3-pointers, including a pair in the fourth quarter, along with a difficult stepback jumper with 1:06 left to give Sacramento the lead, 98-97.

The 10-game winning streak was slipping away. The Celtics valiantly tried to save this win, with Smart trying to score on a putback with the Celtics up 1 and 13.5 seconds left and then trying to strip Richaun Holmes of the rebound that turned into a loose-ball foul.

The effort was there down the stretch but the Celtics’ level of play has been slipping over the past few games: allowing 133 points to the Washington Wizards, letting the rebuilding Warriors push them to the brink Friday, and then making little mistakes that cost them Sunday.


“We’ve just got to be better, that’s really all I can say,” point guard Kemba Walker said. “We’ve just got to be better to start games. Everybody’s going to start to get a little tired. It happens; legs are going to be tired. We have been playing really well. I do think because we’re doing so well teams are definitely going to play us [harder].

“We’re going to get everybody’s best and we have to be prepared for that, prepared to match everyone’s energy every single night.”

The Celtics didn’t have a player reach 20 points Sunday. And Smart was a ghastly 2-for-16 shooting, including 1 for 8 from the 3-point line. Fourth-quarter Kemba never arrived while Jayson Tatum continued his rather inconsistent play.

The Celtics deserved this fate. They played around with a team desperate for a win. The Kings lost to the Lakers on Friday at Staples Center and were angry about two officials calls they felt handed Los Angeles the win. They have been one of the more disappointing teams (5-7 after Sunday) after being picked to reach the playoffs.

So it was even more of a sin the Celtics allowed this young and erratic team to get comfortable and confident in the early going. The Celtics let the Kings believe they could win, and eventually they made the key plays to seal it.


“That was a rough game, definitely one we wish we could have back,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “Made a lot of mistakes, obviously. Even when our bodies are [starting to feel] the long road trip, you gotta be mentally sound and we weren’t as sound as we could have been today. Definitely watching film and getting better and learn from it.

“In this league you have a game tomorrow literally, so we’ve got to let this one go.”

There is another one Monday in Phoenix and the Celtics are now risking this road trip turning into a disappointment with games against the Suns, Clippers, and Nuggets to conclude their first travail west.

“We know it, we see it and I think everybody in the league knows it,” Smart said when asked whether teams are gunning at the Celtics. “We’ve got to do a better job of being ready. This is the third or fourth game we did this and this caught us and bit us in the butt.

“Our margin of error is very small. Although we don’t want to lose, it’s a good loss for us, kind of bring us down to earth and we’ve got to get back to work.”

Brad Stevens wasn’t buying the “good loss” theory.

Wins are hard to come by in the NBA and he felt like his club gave this one away with the lousy start and lousy ending. He is hoping the loss, which had several Celtics visibly disappointed, will serve as a lesson about taking the early stages of games for granted and trying to save face with clutch plays down the stretch.


They needed one more play to win, but the ball had other ideas.

“We gotta be better in the late-game scenario and we’ve got to start it better,” Stevens said. “The road is tough ahead.”

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.