Latest Loss Shows Flaw That Could Keep Celtics from Contending

Kemba Walker, Celtics

Getty Kemba Walker, Celtics

For the fourth straight game at home, the Celtics built up a good lead. In fact, on Sunday evening against Oklahoma City, it was a very healthy, 18-point advantage that Boston established with 1:08 to go in the first half.

For the fourth straight game at home, the Celtics blew that lead, tallying another frustrating loss in a series of frustrating losses at TD Garden, this time against a Thunder bunch that has been feisty all season. This will go down as another choke job for Boston—and as a reason to start getting concerned about this team’s failures in the clutch.

Yes, what a difference a week—or, in this case, eight days—can make. Last Saturday the Celtics were coming off a 3-1 Western Conference swing in which the only loss was a near-miss against the Lakers in L.A. The Celtics were mentioned among the league’s contenders. Then they came home and:

  • Blew a 17-point lead to the Rockets on February 29, losing in overtime.
  • Blew a 21-point lead to the Nets on March 3, losing in overtime.
  • Blew an 11-point lead to the Jazz on March 6.
  • Blew an 18-point lead to the Thunder on Sunday.

To be fair, there was a win in Cleveland squeezed into the middle of that stretch. And there have been injuries. Kemba Walker did not play against the Rockets and has been on a minutes restriction. Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown were injured during the Nets loss and though Hayward has been back, Brown has not played since.

‘You Can Feel Like the Sky is Falling’

This may prove to be a minor glitch for the Celtics. That’s how coach Brad Stevens sees it.

“This is part of navigating your way through this stuff right,” coach Brad Stevens said. “So you can feel like you’re on top of the world one week and you can feel like the sky is falling the next. That’s the hardest part about the NBA is that’s just the way it goes. We’re in a way right now where we just – we just don’t sustain it. The way that we have and the way that we know we can. And so it feels like in those moments other things kind of snowball on you.”

The question of late-game execution has been prominent during this downswing. The Celtics, for a team with aspirations toward the NBA Finals, have been terrible in the clutch lately. Their net offensive rating in the clutch (defined by games within five points with less than five minutes to play) in the last four games has been 100.0 points per 100 possessions. Before last Saturday, it had been 115.5 points per 100 possessions, which ranked seventh in the NBA.

Their defense has been mediocre in the clutch all season and worse than that lately. Before the Houston game, Boston allowed 110.0 points per 100 possessions in the clutch. In the last four home games, though, that number is up to 116.2 points per 100 possessions.

Kemba Walker Turnover a Major Blow

The key play on Sunday was a turnover by Kemba Walker on an inbounds play with 8.5 seconds to go and the Celtics ahead by a point. Ideally, Walker gets the ball, gets fouled, sinks free throws and gives the Celtics enough cushion to finish the game. Instead, Walker tried to dribble out of a trap and had the ball poked away by Dennis Schroder, who finished with a layup to give OKC the lead.

“Kemba did the exact right thing,” Stevens said. “He tried to dribble away from the obvious trap that was coming. Chris Paul did an amazing job moving his feet without fouling, just a tremendous defensive play. And then (Dennis) Schroder went for him full head of steam. By the time Kemba had realized that Schroder was there. Great defensive play by them. The right reaction by Kemba to try to get it out and get it to the other side of the court. 99.999% of the time he’s able to turn that corner and somebody has to chase him and foul him from behind. This time he wasn’t able to do that.”

And this time the Celtics were not able to get a win in a game on which they had a firm hold. That’s now four in a row at home that have followed the same pattern: good early play, a good-sized lead, a lull, then a late collapse. It’s a small sample size but, still, it’s concerning.

READ MORE: Celtics Injury Update: When Will Jaylen Brown Return?


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