Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens made sure to emphasize that Wednesday's game got away from his team in the odd quarters, given that Boston's second-ranked-but-not-playing-like-it-lately defense gave up a whopping 75 points as the Toronto Raptors shot a combined 68.9 percent in the first and third quarters.
Still, the Celtics were tied with the Raptors with under three minutes to play in the final quarter. So it hardly mattered that DeMar DeRozan had erupted for 30 points over the first three quarters or that Jonas Valanciunas couldn't miss. Boston had put itself in position to steal a win against the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, and the only downside to their defensive lapses would have been catching some grief at the next day's film session.
Alas, a familiar scene unfolded. The Raptors came up with some clutch late-game shots and the Celtics could not answer. Terrence Ross hit a bold 3-pointer to make it a two-possession game with 2:16 to play, and DeRozan's pullup jumper -- capping a 34-point night -- put the lead back to four points with 46 seconds to play as the Raptors emerged with a 115-109 triumph at the Air Canada Centre.
The Celtics are now 10-14 in what the league defines as clutch games (when the score is within five points in the final five minutes). Boston's .417 winning percentage in those games puts the team tied for 23rd in the league, matched by, gulp, the 11-win Brooklyn Nets.
Yes, the combined overall win-loss record of the teams that are tied or worse than Boston in clutch win percentage is 120-262. None of the eight teams that comprise that record currently project as playoff-bound. It's essentially the worst of the worst in the NBA, teams with a winning percentage of a mere .314.
But that's probably not much of a surprise. Teams that don't win close games do not make noise in the standings. So maybe it's almost astounding that the Celtics are still 22-21 overall this season despite their inability to win close games.
Entering Wednesday's tilt, the Celtics were shooting just 40.1 percent overall and 28.6 percent beyond the 3-point arc in clutch situations. A road trip that started with Stevens sketching up a beautiful lob to get Jae Crowder a winner in Washington -- Boston's first win in a game decided by three points or fewer this season after starting 0-5 -- ended with consecutive losses in which Boston couldn't generate the offense necessary to find a win.
On Wednesday night, the Celtics missed four of their final six shots and turned the ball over twice in the final three minutes. Isaiah Thomas, who has been one of the league's best crunch-time players, missed his last shot -- a short jumper -- with 1:40 to play and turned the ball over twice in the final 41 seconds.
It's unfair to single out Thomas, but it hammers home Boston's late-game struggles. Stevens noted before Wednesday's game how Thomas' fourth-quarter exploits strengthened his case for an All-Star bid. There's a bit of irony that Boston's fourth-quarter struggles might ultimately cost Thomas a berth if coaches voting for the Eastern Conference reserves favor a player on a team ahead of Boston -- including Toronto's backcourt tandem of DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
But let's be absolutely clear. The bigger issues is this: The Celtics as a whole need better late-game execution to ensure a playoff berth.
The Celtics did a lot of good things on this brief three-game road trip, but had maddening lulls that hurt them, whether it was the slow start in Dallas or the first and third quarters in Toronto. Boston simply isn't good enough, as currently constructed, to win games in which there isn't a more consistent effort over 48 minutes.
One of the hallmarks of Boston's second-half surge last season was its ability to win close games. The Celtics weren't world-beaters in that span; in fact, Boston was just 10-7 in clutch games after the All-Star break. But that was a big jump after going 10-18 in those games at the start of last season. With their returning chemistry and continuity, there's no reason for them to have reverted to struggling to win close games this year.
If Thomas and the Celtics had made their shots late, maybe we'd be talking about how the 5-foot-9 Thomas ranks in the top four in the league in points per 36 minutes in crunch time. We'd be noting how only Steph Curry, Reggie Jackson and LeBron James have scored more efficiently in the fourth quarter recently.
Instead, we're left to wonder: Who else is going to step up to help the Celtics win these close games that keep slipping away?