The Celtics let another winnable game slip away in the final minute on Monday night, falling to the Phoenix Suns 118-114 at TD Garden. Four of Boston’s last five losses have been decided by five points or fewer, and the Celtics have struggled to execute in late-game situations.
Not that this is a particularly new issue. A year ago, Brad Stevens’ charges were a head-shaking 15-34 in what the league defines as “clutch” situations -- games within five points in the final five minutes.
Stevens acknowledged Monday that the team hasn’t shown the sort of improvement that was expected in that area.
“Well, we’re 2-4 in those games [this season], that’s the reality of it,” Stevens said. “And if you’re in even games, all things being equal, I think that you hope to be able to win them. As an extreme optimist, you hope to win them all, and as a realist you hope you get half of them. We’re not there. That’s frustrating. But there are a lot of factors involved and we just have to get better at what we can control.”
The Celtics have done an excellent job being consistently competitive. Last year’s 49 “clutch” games ranked them near the top of the league in that category. The way many in Boston’s locker room looked at it entering the new season, if the Celtics could win closer to half of those games, it would suggest as much as a 10-win improvement was within range.
Whether this year’s issues are a matter of continued growing pains or a daunting November schedule -- or maybe a little bit of both -- the Celtics are trying to balance the frustration of nail-biting losses with the hope that they are making the sort of progress that will show up on the win-loss register soon.
Rondo, perhaps showcasing his role as captain, pinned the team’s struggles on himself. Monday’s near-triple-double line of 14 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists was diminished by eight missed free throws and five turnovers, and Rondo accepted “full responsibility,” while noting he puts “a lot of these losses on myself.”
But when the focus turned to the Celtics as a whole, Rondo offered as much optimism as possible.
“I don’t think we’re down confidence-wise,” Rondo said. “We’re a prideful team and we believe in each other. We have a lot of games that we believe we could have won, but those games are in the past. And we’re going to continue to move forward and get better.”
But how does this team go about winning close games?
“It may just take one game,” Rondo said. “We have a tough couple road games coming up, so we’ll start with that.”
Rondo was adamant things will turn around for Boston.
“We’re not a team to make excuses,” he said. “We will deliver eventually, we have to continue to believe in each other. Stick together.”
The Celtics have major issues that need correcting, most notably a defense that has struggled to consistently generate stops. Boston ranks No. 27 in defensive rating, allowing a staggering 109.4 points per 100 possessions, which offsets all the strides the team has made on the offensive end this season (at least outside of crunch time).
When Boston’s defense started putting consecutive stops together in the fourth quarter on Monday, it helped the team rally ahead and Jeff Green’s steal/dunk/foul combo with 57 seconds to play had the Celtics out front 114-112.
Then the wheels came off. Goran Dragic slipped free of Rondo on a baseline screen and generated a too-easy layup to tie the game. After a timeout to draw up a play, Avery Bradley threw the ball away and Eric Bledsoe streaked in for an uncontested layup and a two-point lead. When Jeff Green’s 3-pointer found iron on the next trip, it essentially sealed the Celtics’ fate.
Maybe it’s their youth, but the Celtics did their best to remain upbeat in the aftermath. Jared Sullinger said, “Confidence is the least of our worries,” echoing Rondo’s pleas that Boston will find a way to start winning these sorts of games.
“We have a lot of young talented guys that listen very well and play hard,” Rondo said. “What more could you ask for?”
Well, more wins probably would take some of the pressure off the team.
The Celtics face the winless Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday before a trip to 10-1 Memphis on Friday. Then Boston is back home for games against Portland (7-3), Chicago (7-3) and San Antonio (6-4) to wrap up their daunting November.
“We will overcome this tough stretch,” Rondo said. “I’m a strong believer that we have a great group of guys in our room that play as hard as possible. We just have to continue to stay on the same page for 48 minutes.”