Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens has done his best to stay optimistic in the face of persistent fourth-quarter failure this season, so maybe that's why his words questioning his team's ability to handle adversity resonated after Tuesday's most recent second-half meltdown in Atlanta.
"When it comes easy, we've been good," Stevens told reporters in Atlanta. "When it gets tough, we haven't. ... Simple formula."
After watching the host Hawks rally from a 23-point deficit for a 109-105 triumph on Tuesday evening, Stevens decried his team's lack of physicality and grit. He suggested that Atlanta simply wanted it more than Boston, and there may be no more damning incrimination for a Stevens-coached team than the suggestion of subpar effort. Heck, that should have been an impossibility on Tuesday considering the Celtics haven't posted a victory against anyone except the winless Sixers since Nov. 8.
And yet there were the Hawks making the necessary plays when they needed them most and winning all the hustle battles while rallying from what should have been an insurmountable first-half deficit.
Boston is now 2-6 in games that are within one possession (+/- 3 points) in the final minute and 2-7 in "clutch" games (+/- 5 points in final 5 minutes). The Celtics' fourth-quarter stat lines are a horror show.
"I've said this before and I believe it to be true: The game honors the more physical team," Stevens said. "It does night in and night out. We've just got to improve in that area. ... It is what it is. I'm not crazy enough to think that if it doesn't change, we'll be sitting up here a lot like this."
The final sequence in Tuesday's game offered a small glimpse into Stevens' frustrations.
Despite falling behind by as much as nine with little more than three minutes to play, the Celtics got a final gasp while facing a two-point deficit with 23.8 seconds to play. Jeff Green got his defender in the air as Al Horford closed out too hard to the 3-point arc, but Green spun away from contact that could have been a (three-point?) foul and elected to drive. When the Hawks came with back line help, Green settled for a free throw line pull-up -- not a terrible shot -- that rimmed out.
The ensuing scramble was probably far more maddening for Stevens. There was still 17.4 seconds on the clock when Green's shot came off the iron. The Hawks struggled to advance with the ball as Boston pursued to foul. At one point, Dennis Schroder lost the ball along the sideline with three green jerseys in the area. But not one Boston player dove to the ground and, instead, Horford had time to corral the ball and deliver a leaping pass to Kent Bazemore near midcourt.
Bazemore streaked in on the right side with Evan Turner and Rajon Rondo in pursuit. Turner, in the middle of the floor, had the best opportunity to at least foul. Instead, Turner barely waved at Bazemore while, um, contesting a layup that put the Hawks out front by 4 with 6.5 seconds to go.
During the first half of Tuesday's game, everything came too easy for Boston. The Celtics shot 61.4 percent from the field and 63.6 percent beyond the 3-point arc while putting up 66 points. Boston generated those big numbers while attempting only six free throws, showing just how much they relied on perimeter shots to fall. Even Stevens admitted during an on-camera interview at halftime that the Hawks were going to make a run.
Stevens nailed that prediction, but his team still seemed flummoxed -- or at least unwilling to stop what was happening. Instead of responding with aggression and playing like a team desperate for a win, the Celtics were content to let Atlanta not only race back into the game, but take the lead.
Stevens lamented that until his team finds a way to handle adversity, he's "going to sound like a broken record." At 4-11 and unable to stop these fourth-quarter meltdowns, the Celtics can't stop skipping.
And Stevens is left to wonder if and when his team is going to get angry enough to do something about it.