The Orlando Magic already had bullied their way back from a 20-point deficit; now the Boston Celtics were clinging to a five-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. Not very tightly, however, as Jonas Jerebko would soon demonstrate.
Jerebko fearlessly went into traffic to secure a rebound after Orlando missed a putback attempt, but Mo Harkless swarmed from one side and Jerebko made the mistake of pulling the ball up over his head trying to prevent a strip. Tobias Harris was lurking behind him and ripped the ball away in one quick motion, then got fouled by Jerebko as he went up for a dunk attempt.
"They really had their way with us," Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters in Orlando after his team endured a 103-98 loss. "They ripped the ball out of our hands on a couple occasions. They made the physical, tough plays the last three quarters that we didn't match. That's about it."
It's one thing to get beat up by a known bully, but the Magic, missing leading scorer Nikola Vucevic and playing with only 10 available bodies, have not exactly been romping around the NBA playground handing out wedgies (well, except to coach Jacque Vaughn, who got fired last month).
No, Boston simply watched as the Magic leaned on speed, hustle and grit while scoring 12 consecutive points with less than four minutes to play to pull away.
By the time Boston got physical, Marcus Smart got ejected for a flagrant-2 foul for what looked like an inadvertent elbow to the face of fellow rookie Elfrid Payton while trying to draw contact on a drive at the basket in the final seconds.
For those members of #TeamEightSeed, this was a particularly brutal loss. Boston had erased the sting of its most lopsided loss of the season on Tuesday in Cleveland by topping the red-hot Jazz on a buzzer-beater, then starting this three-game road trip with a win in New Orleans.
If the Celtics want to make a serious run at a playoff spot, Sunday's game should have been a romp. And early on, it looked like it was going to be just that. Boston's 3-point shots were falling and the Celtics were up 20 after 13 minutes. The Magic dominated the next 35.
"We played one good quarter and got crushed the other three," Stevens said.
Boston (25-36) slipped to 2.5 games out of the East's final playoff berth, for which Indiana and Miami are tied at the moment. All while Charlotte, winners of five straight, attempts to sprint away to the seventh seed.
The Celtics' playoff odds have dipped to 15.9 percent in the updated Hollinger calculations and Indiana (71.2 percent), Charlotte (48.1), Miami (39.9) and Brooklyn (22) all have much better odds at the moment.
Boston still has eight games remaining against the five teams in direct competition for a playoff spot in the East (those teams mentioned above and Detroit). That includes what's now an even more important tilt with the Heat on Monday in Miami.
The Celtics have to want it more than they showed on Sunday. They got beat to 50/50 balls and looked unable (or unwilling) to deter Orlando late in the game. After the Celtics crawled back within 6 with 35.2 seconds to go, Orlando ran a little inbounds play that left Harkless wide-open in the corner opposite the action. Harkless put the ball on the floor and swooped between a charging Jerebko and Jae Crowder for an uncontested dunk that assured Boston's defeat.
The Celtics had been so composed and gritty in recent crunch-time situations, it was jarring to see them on their heels on Sunday against what should have been an inferior opponent. These are the sort of games that Boston had to have to make an honest-to-goodness playoff push and it showed little resistance in letting one get away.