In this discouraging season, nothing is certain with these Celtics, not even an 11-point lead with 6 minutes remaining. So when Portland guard CJ McCollum hit a pair of jumpers to cut the Celtics’ lead to 6, there was a collective “uh-oh” at TD Garden.
The Celtics began to press and pass the ball into an aggressive Portland area, hoping someone would make a play, hit a shot, relieve that pressure and save a collapsing franchise.
Again, this never happened. The Celtics snuffed out another double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, surrendering to a group of Trail Blazers who apparently knew they could catch their vulnerable opponent. They just needed to keep playing, defending, and the mistakes would come. The Celtics would waste scoring opportunities, make stupid fouls, miss defensive missions.
The 109-105 loss is a microcosm of what has been an infuriating season for a franchise that has been mired in mediocrity for nearly two years.
After the game, the Celtics didn’t come out of the locker room for several minutes in awe as they again lost a winnable game, losing their seventh fourth quarter lead in the last 32 days.
They’re still clueless against a zone defense, which is mystifying since it’s considered gimmicky defense at this level as pros usually know how to deal with it after a few possessions.
Not the Celtics. It’s like they’re trying to escape Jurassic Park in the middle of the night. The players looked completely confused by the attacking defense, and instead of whipping the ball around to find the open man, they dribbled and passed in desperation.
The result was no basket in the 7:19 final.
“Shooting is part of it,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “We’ve seen it quite often this year. And the ball can’t just move around the perimeter. You must attack. This is the bottom line. They forced a lot of jump shots. It’s up to me to put us in the position to get the good looks out of the zone. We have seen a lot of things. Charlotte made a few (area) and we scored two, three in a row and they jumped on it.
“It’s a do-or-miss thing. If you can (make) shots in the open area, the teams are doing well. But if you miss them, they will stay there. Our execution was not as clean as it should be.
Once again, Udoka is waiting for a team to hit open shots that haven’t proven they can consistently hit open shots all season. And as long as the Celtics can’t hit open outside shots, teams will use zones and the Celtics will look like a Pop Warner team playing the 1985 Chicago Bears.
Portland finished the game on a 20-5 run, capping a 3-point corner from Robert Covington to give the Blazers a 103-102 lead. Covington had been a complete non-factor, playing 37 minutes and missing both of his shots.
Still, the Celtics find themselves in these unlucky situations because it’s like they don’t know what to do when they’re thriving. Grant Williams scored a layup with 7:19 to go for a 100-89 Boston lead and Portland, in Game 5 of a six-game road trip, looked ready to give in.
Except the Celtics responded by missing a 3-pointer and committing two turnovers. McCollum then responded with his buckets.
Again, fourth quarter offensive execution was non-existent. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown shot 1 of 8 in the final period. And Tatum tried to save the Celtics with a disputed 3-point drop in less than 1 point with 6.7 seconds left.
It was a hero shot and illustrates desperation in many cases. Tatum was trying to save his team from embarrassment, snap a streak of 19 straight 3-point misses and prove he can beat a zone with a shot he practices hundreds of times a day.
But with the Celtics’ fortunes this season, that shot had no chance of going through the basket. It ended and Tatum was left in a confusing shooting spree and his team had no idea how to close the games.
“Earlier in the year, I felt like (it’s gone) a little bit,” Udoka said. “We’ve gotten a bit tighter. I don’t feel like that’s been the case in the last 10 or so games. I feel like we’ve improved and we’ve had close games against Chicago and Indiana that we pulled and that’s why this one stings a bit more. It wasn’t early in the season that we didn’t see those things. We had adapted to do better in those last ones time.
Tatum, who led Boston with 27 points but missed all six of their 3-point attempts, said he still believed the Celtics could salvage the season. They are a match below. 500 with 35 games to go and look no closer to healing their ailments than a month ago.
“It hurts and bothers you, as it should,” he said. “I can’t go back in time. Go back to the gym, watch a movie, learn from your mistakes and try to improve on them. It’s literally all you can do. We just need to stay healthy and run a race together. We had bad defeats but we beat the best teams.
But a discouraging cloud hangs over this team which seems to be growing as the season progresses. Nearly 50 games and the Celtics still can’t break down a zone defense or score consistently on the stretch or hold a lead. So, in reality, Friday’s result was not that surprising.
Gary Washburn is a columnist for The Globe. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.