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Celtics must relearn how to win close games

BOSTON -- Dallas Mavericks veteran Dirk Nowitzki found the perfect way to describe the final seconds of Wednesday's 106-102 win over the Boston Celtics when he dubbed it, "High school-ish."

The Celtics, once up 18 in the first half, had allowed the Mavericks to rally ahead, and Dallas owned a seemingly safe seven-point lead with 30 seconds to play. But when Raymond Felton missed a pair of free throws with 16.5 ticks to go in a two-point game, it gave Boston an improbable final gasp.

If only Boston had been ready for the moment. Avery Bradley tracked down the tipped rebound near the Celtics' bench and, without a timeout, hurriedly handed off to Isaiah Thomas. Boston's pint-sized point guard hesitated a half-second before trying to break out in transition and was at full throttle by the time he tried to attack the paint with more than 11 seconds to play. Catching Devin Harris flat-footed at the free throw line, Thomas tried to switch his dribble to his left hand, but instead lost control of the ball and a trailing Felton tracked it down.

"That was a mistake of mine," Thomas said. "[Felton] gambled at the beginning [of the play], so I felt like I had some room to work. I should have just slowed it down a little bit, but I had Devin Harris on his heels as well. So I've just got to be conscious of that and learn from that mistake."

Make no mistake: Boston did not lose Wednesday's game in the final seconds. As coach Brad Stevens noted afterward, "That was certainly a play that Isaiah would like to have back, but that wasn't what lost us the game. I thought that we had too many spurts of not-urgent-enough play and that probably hurt us more."

Boston's lack of poise down the stretch was apparent. The Celtics looked rushed and disjointed offensively numerous times in the final five minutes. Down five with 34 seconds to go, Thomas threw up a 27-foot pull-up rainbow 3-pointer that hit nothing but Deron Williams' outstretched hands on the baseline.

Boston's uneasiness shouldn't be all that surprising. Even while Boston won six of seven games during the exhibition season, Stevens lamented the lack of crunch-time reps his team was receiving, knowing full well that regular-season games would be much tougher to pull out.

But even while winning five of six games before Wednesday's visit from the Mavericks, the Celtics had posted a quintet of double-digit wins (average margin of victory being 16 points in that span). Boston had encountered little adversity while running away in the second halves of recent games.

And Wednesday night they might have been lulled into thinking they were going to breeze again. Late in the first quarter, Bradley scored 12 consecutive points in less than a two-minute span. When he followed a short time after with a behind-the-back bounce pass to feed Thomas for a transition layup and an 18-point lead, TD Garden roared as loudly as it has all season.

Boston simply wasn't prepared when Dallas rallied and things got tight down the stretch.

The Celtics played 45 games last season that the NBA defines as "clutch" -- or within five points in the final five minutes. And a giant reason for Boston's second-half surge to the playoffs was the way the Celtics figured out how to win those games later in the season.

Before the All-Star break last season, the Celtics were 10-18 (.357 winning percentage) in 28 clutch games. After the All-Star break (and the trade deadline acquisition of Thomas), Boston went 10-7 (.588) in 17 clutch games.

Entering Wednesday night, the Celtics had played in only three clutch games this season with only nine minutes of total play in games that were within five points with under five minutes to play. Narrow that search to one-possession games in the final three minutes and Boston had played a mere three total minutes of crunch-time basketball.

Boston's young team must recondition itself to thrive in tight situations. Thomas, one of the league's best fourth-quarter performers last season, must be a steadying hand for this team when things get tense.

The Celtics are going to win some games by a comfortable margin. But if they are to achieve their lofty goals, they're going to have to win a lot of uncomfortable ones, too. And Wednesday only confirmed Boston must relearn how to win close games.