There have been other losses, 54 of them, in fact, before the Boston Celtics rolled over in the final five minutes Wednesday. The defeat stretched their drought to nine consecutive games, so it wasn’t as though the Celtics came in as a well-oiled machine.
Yet this one still felt different. The Celtics have blown bigger leads, but not quite as quickly. They have lost other games, but never quite with such unforgivable defensive breakdowns. They have fallen short, but almost always had some silver lining to speak of.
Not this time.
The Celtics’ 105-97 loss to the Atlanta Hawks probably won’t register with most fans, since only the absolute diehards inside or outside New England likely caught more than a few minutes of game action. But after leading by as many as nine points in the second half and holding a comfortable eight-point advantage heading into the fourth quarter, the Celtics were outscored 25-8 over the final 5:10 in one of the most unacceptable losses of their season.
“I don’t know what to say, other than you’ve got to play all the way through the game,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters in Atlanta. “We’ve got to be better collectively at both ends. But the big ones are those transition baskets. It gets them back in it. It gets them quick baskets. It gives them momentum.”
It almost was as though a change came over the Celtics in the second half, when word began to leak out that the Orlando Magic had beaten the Brooklyn Nets. Suddenly, a bottom-three spot in the standings was there for the taking. If the Celtics lost, they would move into a tie with Orlando for the third-worst record — and the third-highest draft lottery odds — in the NBA.
Following a free throw by Rajon Rondo for an 89-80 Boston lead, the Celtics simply stopped playing defense. They left Kyle Korver, owner of the league record for most consecutive games with a 3-pointer, absurdly open on back-to-back possessions to give the Hawks the lead for good. With that, the Celtics matched the Magic with identical 23-55 records. It was tough to watch, if you’re interested in seeing winning basketball.
If you’re not, well, hopefully you DVRed this one. You’ll want to watch it over and over.
For the first three quarters and the first two minutes of the fourth quarter, Korver was unusually quiet. He’d taken just three shots from beyond the arc and hit only one. The league’s most accurate 3-point shooter was either having an off night or merely biding his time.
It turned out to be the latter.
Korver drained his second triple of the game at the 9:10 mark of the fourth, part of three consecutive treys he hit to finish the game. One would like to give a nod of respect to Korver — and we do — but the Celtics didn’t exactly make it tough on him.
“The last one, he was wide open,” Stevens said, “so that’s not good.”
Actually, Korver was pretty much wide open on all three. This can’t be pinned on one player assigned to check Korver, either. When a shooter that dangerous is on the court, it’s a team-wide responsibility to be aware of where he is and make sure somebody is near him. And it’s a team-wide failure when they don’t.