If the Boston Celtics want to prove that they still belong among the leading title contenders, they’ll need to sort out a troubling trend that has emerged in recent weeks and reared its ugly head again on Saturday night in their 118-117 defeat to the Utah Jazz.
For the fifth time in their last seven losses, the Celtics blew a double-digit lead. This time, they were up by 19 points in the first half before the host Jazz came storming back to steal the game. While the Celtics had two chances to take the lead in the final 30 seconds, their shot selection was questionable. Jayson Tatum bricked a pull-up 3 that looked more like a two-for-one attempt at the end of the first quarter, and Grant Williams was blocked by Walker Kessler in the closing seconds on an ill-advised drive.
With the loss, the Celtics fell to 49-23 on the season, which puts them percentage points behind the red-hot Philadelphia 76ers in the race for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, and two games behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the top spot. That the Celtics officially clinched a playoff spot on the night will mean little.
Even more disappointing than the fact that they’ve been playing .500 basketball for more than a month, is the manner of their defeats. The Celtics are 8-7 in their last 15 games, but could be 13-2 in that stretch. At the very least they should have a better record than they do considering that they’ve blown at least a 14-point lead in five of those seven defeats.
Let’s take a closer look:
Feb. 14 at Bucks
- Biggest lead: 14 points — 2:16 remaining in third quarter
- Last time leading by double digits: 1:28 remaining in third quarter
- Final margin of defeat: Six points (overtime)
Note: Game played without Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Al Horford
March 3 vs. Nets
- Biggest lead: 28 points — 7:23 remaining in second quarter
- Last time leading by double digits: halftime
- Final margin of defeat: 10 points
Note: Second-biggest blown lead in the NBA this season
- Biggest lead: 14 points — 6:27 remaining in third quarter
- Last time leading by double digits: 4:36 remaining in third quarter
- Final margin of defeat: Two points (double overtime)
Note: Jayson Tatum missed game-winning shot at buzzer of regulation; Al Horford missed game-winning shot at buzzer of ovetime
- Biggest lead: 15 points — 4:45 remaining in third quarter
- Last time leading by double digits: 7:06 remaining in fourth quarter
- Final margin of defeat: Four points (overtime)
Notes: Game played without Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Robert Williams III; Grant Williams missed potential game-winning free throws in closing seconds of regulation; second night of back-to-back
March 18 at Jazz
- Biggest lead: 19 points — 6:36 remaining in second quarter
- Last time leading by double digits: 3:25 remaining in second quarter
- Final margin of defeat: One point
Notes: Grant Williams missed potential game-winning layup in closing seconds; second night of back-to-back
If there’s a silver lining for the Celtics, it’s that they were shorthanded in a number of these games and still managed to build a double-digit lead anyway, which shows the team’s depth of talent. Furthermore, they missed potential game-winning shots in three of them.
Nevertheless, it’s concerning that they’ve had so much trouble closing out games down the stretch. This is the time of year where you want to be playing your best basketball, just as the Celtics were last season. Instead, their worst habits are seemingly on display now more than ever.
The Celtics still have one of the deepest rosters in the league, led by multiple All-NBA wings in Tatum and Brown, and are in the top-five in both offensive and defensive rating. There’s no question they have the ability to compete for a title, but whether they’ll have the consistency remains to be seen.