Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens could see what was about to happen, but all he could do was point. Maybe that's why, as the play started to unfold, he showed a rare rush of emotions on the sideline, coiling his body and pounding his knee in frustration with a closed fist. And that was before Atlanta Hawks guard Kyle Korver had even caught the ball, let alone made the wide-open corner 3-pointer that propelled the hosts to a 105-97 triumph at Phillips Arena.
After rallying from a 14-point first-half deficit, the Celtics surged ahead by nine with little more than five minutes to play on Wednesday in Atlanta. Stop me if you've heard this script before -- and you most certainly have, considering Boston's now-14-33 mark in games in which they led or trailed by 5 points or fewer with 5 minutes to go -- but the Hawks embarked on a 10-0 run to jump back out front. Unfazed, Jared Sullinger hit a 3-pointer to put Boston up 92-90 with 3:20 to go, and it should have ripped the momentum away from the Hawks.
Then Korver inexcusably got free in transition. Remember, this was after a made basket, so Boston has no excuse for not being back and set. Korver, who had left his man to put up a hand on Sullinger's 3-pointer, was the first Hawk down the floor and noticed that Rondo was calling out assignments with his back to him. Korver darted from the right side of the floor to the left corner, where he staked out until Jeff Teague delivered a pass from a few steps inside half court. Just look at how far from the play Rondo is when Korver catches the ball (screenshot via CSN broadcast):
Stevens was desperately trying to get Sullinger's attention to rush to the corner, but by the time he noticed Korver alone it was too late. Everyone in the building knew that shot was falling.
Let's be clear: This was one of many late-game lapses by the Celtics (and Rondo was mostly excellent in big minutes). But it was maybe also the most glaring. Korver made a 3-pointer less than three minutes in, then went quiet for the next three quarters. But when Boston absolutely needed to keep track of him, they lost him twice in transition. The Hawks closed the game on a 13-5 run over the final 3:08.
The defensive lapses were head-shaking. Brandon Bass hedged too hard, and when Jared Sullinger switched to Bass' man, it left Elton Brand open for a jumper that made it a two-possession game with 1:50 to go. After Boston failed to score at the other end, DeMarre Carroll fumbled a pass on the blocks. Five Celtics were nearby in a late-clock situation, but Carroll simply reached down, corralled the ball and went up for a layup (screenshot via CSN broadcast):
The good news: These are seemingly easily avoidable instances. The bad news: These are seemingly easily avoidable instances, and the Celtics continue to endure these sorts of lapses in play. Take away the first and last five minutes of Wednesday's game and the Celtics outscored the Hawks 79-59 for the roughly 38 minutes in between.
But it's 48 minutes that Stevens has been so desperately seeking, and the Celtics didn't stay focused for the whole game. The team's margin for error, as we know by now, simply isn't great enough to overcome that.
In the grand scheme of things, there are four games to play in the season and the majority of Celtics fans were pumping their fists while Stevens clenched his after Korver's pivotal triple. Now riding a nine-game losing streak, Boston has shuffled into a tie with Orlando -- winners of two straight -- for the third-worst record in basketball.
Stevens still yearns for progress, but the Celtics keep making familiar mistakes. Maybe in May he'll be able to find a tiny bit of solace if these losses boost Boston's draft pick.