Celtics struggling to hold on to big leads

Celtics struggling to hold on to big leads
December 29, 2013, 2:00 pm
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BOSTON - If you're at a Celtics game and the C's jump out to a big lead, you'd be wise not to sit back and relax.

Boston came this close to completely blowing another one on Saturday against the Cavaliers. After building a 19-point lead in the fourth quarter, they barely managed to squeak out a 103-100 victory, and only after not one, but two game-tying attempts by the Cavs fell short in the final 20 seconds.

Nor was it the first time it's happened. The C's continue to find themselves in a similar position game after game -- sprinting out of the gate, and falling flat on their faces just short of the finish line. Saturday was one example, but there are plenty of others:

11/1: Celtics lead Bucks by 22 points midway through third quarter. Bucks cut it to 12 going into fourtth quarter. Beat Celtics, 105-98.

12/6: Celtics lead Nuggets by 24 points to start second quarter. Lead is cut to three. Boston holds on, 106-98

12/13: Celtics lead Knicks by 17 points in second quarter. Knicks tie it midway through thirrd quarter. Knicks take 11-point lead in fourth before Boston goes on 10-0 run. Boston comes back and wins, 90-86.

12/18: Celtics lead Pistons by 21 points early in second quarter. Then they shoot 29.2 percent from field in third quarter to allow Pistons to get to one point behind going into fourth quarter. Celtics lose, 107-106.

12/21: Celtics lead Wizards by 18 points early in second quarter. Outscored by Wizards 22-7 in final six minutes of game. Celtics lose, 106-99.

And then, of course, came Saturday's 19-point fourth-quarter lead that was cut down to two in the final seconds.

Never a dull moment for the Green and White.

“You know," Brad Stevens began after Saturday's narrow escape, "I was telling [team president] Rich Gotham, it should’ve been promoted as part of our holiday package. ‘Every game is an adventure.’  And that would’ve been a . . . you know, Green Runs Deep #everygamesanadventure. That would be a great thing to promote . . . "

And then he got serious.

"It was an [unnecessary] adventure, and we’ve got to be better in those situations," said Stevens. "Again, we have been for the majority of the time, but for whatever reason in the last two weeks we haven’t. Today I just didn’t think we played purposefully when it mattered. You have to balance this idea of playing with extreme maturity with still playing clear mind and loose. Hard balance.”

With so many opponents being given second chances when it appears the game is out of reach, you have to wonder if that will soon become part of the Celtics' DNA . . . and part of their opponent's scouting report. An opposing team will never truly feel "out" of the game if it takes a look at how many big leads the Celtics have given up in the past.

Stevens, though, doesn't think that is or will be the case, and actually is okay with opposing teams feeling that way.

“No. It would be great if we can figure out a way to play better, and I think we will, but I’m not worried about that," Stevens said. "Hopefully people come in and say ‘Hey, we can get down (because we think we can erase big deficits against the Celtics).' But I think, again, we’ve made the last couple weeks an adventure, and we haven’t played the right way the whole game.  And whether that’s in the first half or the fourth quarter, we have to become a better team for 48 minutes. Three times we’ve not played well in the second half, but once we didn’t play well the whole game. So we’ve got a lot of minutes we’ve got to get better at.”

The Celtics are one of the poorer fourth-quarter teams. Their offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) in the fourth quarter dips to 98.7, 25th in the NBA. Their defensive rating is 106.7, 21st in NBA. That gives them a net rating of −8.0, 28th in NBA. Their true shooting percentage (adjusted for the value of free throws and 3-point field goals) is 52.3 percent, 23rd in NBA.

And when it comes to protecting the ball, don't look at the Celtics. Boston ranks dead last in the fourth quarter in assist-to-turnover ratio, at 1.0 (one assist per turnover).

That's sloppy basketball. Even though you'd expect that to improve when Rajon Rondo returns, the question remains: What's causing it now?

"I think we relax," Avery Bradley said when asked about giving up big leads. "Jordan [Crawford] says it all the time, 'Let's keep the petal down, continue to increase our lead.' And we always come out and make dumb passes. We show how young we are as a team. To be a great team in this league, you have to get rid of those plays."

Knowing how to hold big leads is definitely something that comes along with experience. As Bradley points out, the Celtics are young. Having lost all of their key veterans from last season, younger players like Bradley, Crawford and Jared Sullinger are taking on bigger roles and learning how to manage the game on the court.

Somebody like Jeff Green, who has more experience, understands that teams will exchange runs all the time in the NBA, and it's just about taking them and fighting them off.

"This game is made up of runs," Green said. "[The Wizards] were not shooting well the whole game (Saturday), but we eventually knew that Kyrie [Irving] was going to get his points, [Dion] Waiters was going to come alive, and [Jarett] Jack hit a couple 3s which brought them closer. We had to keep our focus and I think we did a great job of that, we didn't allow that run to affect us down the stretch."

But Stevens summed up the Celtics' most recent fourth-quarter "adventure" pretty nicely.

"I thought we did a really good job and played exceptionally well in the fourth quarter, for [19.3] seconds."