BOSTON -- The Celtics spent the first part of the season as one of the most sluggish first-quarter teams in the league. They've corrected that, but they're still on the elusive quest to become a 48-minute team and one that's comfortable playing with a lead.
One game after kicking away an early 21-point advantage in a loss to the Detroit Pistons, the Celtics fumbled away an 18-point cushion while falling to the Washington Wizards 106-99 during a Saturday matinee at TD Garden.
Over the course of this five-game homestand, the Celtics outscored opponents by a staggering 9.8 points in the first quarter. To put that in perspective, that's almost three points better than the nearest team (Oklahoma City Thunder at plus-7.0) and almost double the next-closest squad (Dallas Mavericks at plus-5.0).
But Boston's quarterly splits get ugly from there: minus-3.6 in the second quarter, minus-6 in the third and minus-1.8 in the fourth during that span.
Is Boston getting a little too comfortable with early leads?
"I don't think they're too comfortable. I think, more than anything, maybe not playing with enough focus on controlling the next thing," said coach Brad Stevens. "Because when you start to lose a lead, that's a challenging thing from a human-nature standpoint. So one of the things that we've got to do is we've just got to be better in playing the next possession, regardless of circumstance.
"And a lot of that has to do with being young. A lot of that has to do with being on the right side of the scoreboard on a couple of occasions. And you build belief, and then this is the next challenge that comes with that, right? So you never would say a good start's not good. A good start's what you want, but you also want the rest of the 48 minutes to be good as well."
During this five-game homestand, Boston shot 59.3 percent overall from the floor in the first quarter and 50 percent beyond the 3-point arc. Its average lead was 30.6-20.8.
During Saturday's visit from the Wizards, it was even greater. Boston shot 60 percent from the field and, keyed by 10 points from Jared Sullinger, owned a 30-14 advantage after the first 12 minutes.
Washington trimmed its deficit to seven at halftime and had tied the game before the end of the third quarter. Trevor Ariza (game-high 27 points) and John Wall (20 points, 9 assists, 6 steals) took over the final 16 minutes, and a 14-1 run late in the fourth helped Washington lead by as much as nine in the closing moments.
Stevens doesn't just want to figure out what's going wrong over the final 36 minutes but also how his team can duplicate the success of the first 12.
"It's better to be starting good than not, and then the key is we've got to play better for 48 minutes," said Stevens. "I'm not too concerned about the [leads]. Obviously the leads are concerning in that you have a chance to win the game, but as much emphasis as I should put on why we're not winning the next 36, I should put on why we're winning the first 12. And so I've got to just keep focusing on all those little things."
Turnovers didn't help Boston's cause in the third quarter. After committing just three first-half giveaways, Boston kicked the ball away six times in the third frame.
Boston's body language by the end of the third quarter said it all. Slumped shoulders and shaking heads. The Celtics knew they let the Wizards back into the game and were in for a fight the rest of the way to simply get themselves refocused.
"Jordan Crawford came to me in the third quarter, and he said it perfect; he was like, 'We can't keep letting these teams stick around in the third quarter. We just have to keep pushing the pedal, speeding up the game,'" said Avery Bradley. "We slow down, we're not making shots, and that's not our game."
Bradley did all he could to jump-start Boston's offense, scoring 21 second-half points on 10-of-14 shooting. Eight of those shots came from the midrange or deeper.
Trouble was that Boston's energy seemed to get sapped when those shots didn't fall for the team.
"Don't wait for the shot to start falling to play the right way," said Stevens. "We got our energy off of made shots in the last two games. We need to get our energy back off of getting stops. Once we do that, that cures a lot of the ills that we're talking about."
Indeed, Boston's defensive rating the last five games has jumped to 103.5, or about two points more than the season average. When you consider that four of the five games on the homestand were decided by single digits, that's a noticeable increase.
Boston simply isn't a consistent enough offensive team to try to feed off made shots at that end of the floor or to let up on defense.
"I think we're an offensive energy team. We have to be ready to play defense 100 percent of the time, and as long as we do that, I think we're going to be great," said Sullinger. "Sometimes our defense is our offense, and we have to understand that and we have to keep playing."
Echoed Gerald Wallace: "We're getting too comfortable with our shots falling. Just like anybody, when you're making shots, the game is a lot easier, it's a lot more fun, things go better. When you're not making shots, it's tough. When you continue to shoot those shots and they're not falling, it puts a lot of pressure on your defense. And I think that's what we've done in the last games that we've lost is we continue to shoot those shots. Instead of slowing it down, trying to get a good one, we're forcing a lot of shots, and we're not making them right now."
Things don't get any easier for the Celtics with a trip to Indiana for the second night of a back-to-back on Sunday. The Celtics can make their lives a little easier by trying to focus on each possession and not getting overly concerned about the scoreboard.