BOSTON -- Of all the once-reliable aspects of the Boston Celtics that have eroded for the team during its recent skid, none is more troubling to coach Doc Rivers than its inability to produce timely stops.
And Rivers isn't talking about Kobe Bryant's fadeaway jumper over Ray Allen with 7.3 seconds remaining Sunday, which gave the Los Angeles Lakers a 90-89 win over the slumping Celtics. Allen played near-flawless defense on the play; Bryant simply made the type of shot he's made time and time again throughout his career.
Boston led by 11 points with 9:17 remaining, and while its offense certainly downshifted, its typically unwavering defense did too. Maybe even more so.
Of the 24 points the Lakers scored in the fourth quarter, a staggering
18 came in the paint. (How many points did Boston score in the paint in the fourth quarter? Zero.)
Considering the Lakers added four fourth-quarter free throws, only one basket came outside of the paint: Bryant's winner. What's more, Los Angeles generated only two fast-break points in the period, meaning the Lakers simply brought the ball down the court, got it inside the paint, and scored.
"I don't know if concern is the word, but we haven't been able to get timely stops to end the game," Rivers said. "If anything bothers me, over the turnovers and the offensive [struggles], it's that we've been able in the past to lean on our defense when we go cold offensively.
"The Atlanta game, down the stretch, they scored every time. The Orlando game, down the stretch, they scored every time. And again tonight. The biggest quarters over the last three games, offensively, have been the fourth quarters by the other teams. And we have to reverse that."
For the second time in four days, the Celtics watched an 11-point fourth-quarter lead disappear. The Lakers needed only two minutes to turn that double-digit deficit into a one-possession game by scoring four straight baskets, including Jordan Farmar's driving reverse layup with 6:58 to go that made it 81-78.
The Celtics were still clinging to that three-point lead with less than two minutes to go, but couldn't get the key stop to seal the game. Bryant drew a foul with 1:39 to play and made both freebies, then Ron Artest not only blew past Kevin Garnett, but muscled his way through Kendrick Perkins for a little runner in the lane with 41.8 seconds to go.
It was the second time in three games that Garnett barely slowed his man driving to the basket for a crucial hoop; he simply lost Artest to the inside, and similarly let Rashard Lewis blow past him for the winning bucket against Orlando.
At the other end of the floor, the Lakers got the stops they needed, even if they were questionable at times, like when Artest drew a Paul Pierce charge to set up Bryant's winner.
"It's hard to say," Allen said of the Celtics' inability to get defensive stops when they needed them. "There's one play where Kobe went to the free throw line; it was a judgment call. And then Kobe, the last shot he took, he just shot it over me. It wasn't like it was bad defense."
The Celtics can't simply lament one failed stop, as Allen acknowledged. The failed stops before that led to Bryant's final chance. "We put them in that situation," Rivers said.
Added Allen: "Obviously, we have to keep the ball from going in, that's getting stops. By any means necessary, whatever the means, we have to do it."
Pierce tried to find a positive, saying, "Our defense was strong for most of the game." Problem was, it wasn't solid for the final seven minutes. The Celtics have preached consistency and being a 48-minute team. As in many of the past 17 games, 11 of them losses, the Celtics again were inconsistent at best.
"We've been beating ourselves," Rasheed Wallace said. "We've had double-digit leads, coming into [the fourth quarter] and losing those leads. I don't know, I guess we just have to go a little bit harder, step on the pedal a little bit harder."
Forget the gas pedal. The Celtics need to rediscover how to jam on the brakes and get a stop. It might be the only way to stop their losing ways.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.