For a Boston Celtics team that made a run to the NBA Finals a season ago, it’s strange the Celtics would need to re-learn how to win in crunch time after doing so in the playoffs just months ago.
But that’s the message Celtics interim head coach Joe Mazzulla conveyed after the Celtics fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers in overtime, 132-123, at TD Garden on Friday night.
Mazzulla didn’t really see Boston’s defense as a problem in the loss — he should think about that again after the Celtics surrendered at least 120 points for a third straight game and allowed Donovan Mitchell and Caris LeVert to combine for 82 points — but more so his team’s inability to come through on either end of the court when it mattered most.
“I think in the second half we just lost our pace, we lost our speed, we lost our ability to create separation,” Mazzulla told reporters as seen on NBC Sports Boston postgame coverage. “I thought we were in good position to win the game, we just didn’t make the winning plays down the stretch. I don’t know if there’s as much of an issue as there is we have to make winning plays. We can’t take anything for granted. We had some empty possessions, we had turnovers and we had offensive rebounds given up. So, when you do those things, it puts you in a tough spot to win.”
Boston led twice over the final 80 seconds of regulation, but couldn’t close things out. On one occasion, the Celtics inexplicably allowed LeVert to grab an offensive rebound off a missed Mitchell 3-pointer. As Al Horford lost focus and either complained to a referee or teammate for the miscue, LeVert wandered out beyond the arc and drained a go-ahead trey.
Boston retook the lead with 28 seconds left, but another breakdown defensively on the next possession let Jarrett Allen go to the free-throw line to tie the game and force overtime.
The final nail in the Celtics’ coffin on the night was back-to-back turnovers by Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum with just over a minute left in the extra frame and the Celtics only trailing by three.
“I said this last year, too, every year even though you have experience guys, you have a good group, you have to learn how to figure things out and learn how to win games,” Horford told reporters, as seen on NBC Sports Boston. “And right now I just feel like we gave them life and they took advantage.”