Balking in Memphis: Frustrated Celtics unravel again

As if the Boston Celtics' frustration with their recent play needed to be condensed into one short clip, there was a sequence late in the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss to the Memphis Grizzlies -- a 101-98 defeat in which Boston kicked away a 21-point lead -- that saw second-year guard Marcus Smart get blocked emphatically at the rim in the final minute of a one-point game, then inexplicably foul at the other end despite more than enough time on the clock to play for a stop.

Smart, who owned up to the miscue after the game, shouldn't be singled out, in part because he had some excellent moments during Sunday's game. Heck, the fact that Smart put himself on the blocks with Boston looking for a go-ahead basket late in the game is commendable itself considering that the Celtics tend to operate as if there's an invisible force field around the paint during the second half of recent games.

But Smart's rough stretch was the boiling point of two infuriating weeks in which Boston has dropped five of six games. During that time, the Celtics lost games to two inferior opponents -- the Kobe-retirement-tour Lakers and a Brooklyn Nets squad that cleaned house on Sunday -- and blew double-digit leads in every game during a current three-game losing streak.

The Grizzlies corralled Smart's blocked attempt with 40 seconds left, more than enough time for Boston to play for a stop and still have ample time for an offensive opportunity. But as Smart hustled to rejoin the play, he inexplicably wrapped up Mario Chalmers just over the midcourt stripe and committed a foul with Memphis in the bonus.

Behind Smart, Isaiah Thomas slapped his thighs repeatedly in anger. Jared Sullinger threw his hands in the air in disbelief. Jae Crowder stomped his way to Smart and chastised him for committing a foul that was anything but smart. Chalmers made both freebies and the Celtics missed a quick attempt at a tying 3-pointer. It was slightly less egregious, but it should be noted that Crowder fouled in the aftermath and there was still enough time to play for a stop.

In fact, the Celtics were back within three with 5.1 seconds to play and Thomas, who broke out of a bit of an offensive funk by scoring a game-high 35 points on 11-of-19 shooting and added eight assists to completely fuel the offense, managed to steal the inbounds pass and tip it to Avery Bradley, who was back after a three-game absence due to a hip pointer. Bradley missed a hurried straightaway 3-pointer and, as if to add insult to injury, Thomas connected on a 3-pointer just a bit after the final buzzer off a Smart offensive rebound.

Boston was up 21 after an Amir Johnson step-back 3-pointer with 10:05 to play in the third quarter, and the lead was still in double figures with less than 11 minutes to play in the fourth. Alas, the Celtics shot 28.6 percent in the final quarter. Maybe learning from recent second-half struggles, they actually did a decent job attacking the basket. Fourteen of the Celtics' 21 shots in the final frame came near the rim, though they made just five of those attempts, and they were 1-of-7 from further out.

With Bradley back, coach Brad Stevens stuck with a nine-man rotation, though many Celtics fans will quibble with using David Lee as the fourth big man. Lee, who had logged three consecutive DNPs and even told reporters how he was out of the rotation last week, was summoned as Stevens apparently looked to spark the second-unit offense against a Memphis team with size. Lee had decent stretches, but he missed an alarming number of layups while finishing with four points on 2-of-12 shooting (11 of those shots coming at the rim). He was minus-12 over 15 minutes, 36 seconds, while neither Jonas Jerebko nor Tyler Zeller played.

When the Celtics put together a season-best four-game winning streak in late December, some wondered if they might be the favorite to earn the No. 2 seed in a crowded Eastern Conference. Two weeks later, the Celtics find themselves at 19-18 and a half-game outside the playoff picture. The Celtics were supposed to separate themselves from the pack during this favorable stretch on the schedule. Instead they've slipped behind the pack. In fact, if the Celtics lose against the New York Knicks on Tuesday, the two teams would essentially be tied in the standings.

Which is to say that things have not gone the way that Boston expected. The Celtics simply seem unable to move forward, either resting on the success they've enjoyed, or powerless to move past setbacks. That goes for on-court action, too. The worst thing for Boston seems to be an early lead, because the Celtics tend to downshift and let their opponent gain confidence while rallying from behind. Then, when things get tight, Boston goes into a shell and wants things to come easy. And it never does.

The Celtics still own the second-best defensive rating in the league, Thomas has played like an All-Star more often than not, and Stevens is still a wizard of the dry-erase board. (Just watch the Picasso he drew up on the final play of the first half that generated Kelly Olynyk an easy layup.)

And yet the past two weeks have been extremely discouraging. There is natural concern as the Celtics regularly give up big leads and struggle to catch themselves in crunch-time situations. Boston is now 8-11 in clutch games, those within five points in the final five minutes. That .421 winning percentage ranks Boston 21st in the league.

We've noted it before and we'll stress it again now: One of the biggest reasons that Boston made a second-half surge to the playoffs last season was that a young team figured out how to win clutch games. This Celtics team doesn't seem like it has learned how to win close games yet, and they keep losing these stomach-punch games.