Commentary

Celtics, Stevens tiring of near misses

Updated: April 7, 2014, 9:08 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Likely because he was going to be awakened by the image replaying in his subconscious over and over again anyway, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he watched Jerryd Bayless' late-game 3-point attempt against the Detroit Pistons roughly 20 times in the immediate aftermath of another narrow loss.

Each time, Bayless' shot got about halfway down and rattled back out. Each time, the Celtics lost their eighth straight game and 13th in 14 tries. Each time, Stevens lamented just how close his team has been to victory only to watch things go the other way.

Stevens knew there would be losses this season. But what he says keeps him up at night are the games that Boston could have stolen.

[+] EnlargeJerryd Bayless
Raj Mehta/USA TODAY SportsJerryd Bayless reacts after missing a 3-pointer near the end of the Celtics' loss at Detroit.

This season, the Celtics have played 46 games in which they have either led or trailed by five points with less than five minutes to play, and 30 of those were a one-possession game in the final minute, according to the league's statistical database.

You can make the case that, with a few more fortuitous bounces and clutch play, the Celtics would be spending these final days of the 2013-14 season competing for a playoff spot in a downtrodden Eastern Conference rather than jockeying with the likes of Orlando for prime lottery position.

With five games remaining, Stevens would like nothing more than for his team to show progress by finding a way to win any remaining games that go down to the wire.

"In the big picture, what bothers me and what I'm going to study and get better at is we have had some opportunities to win the close games," Stevens said. "I think there's a lot of factors that have ultimately played into why, but it's been fairly inconsistent.

"Sometimes it's one thing, sometimes it's another. But at the end of the day, those are the ones that drive you nuts, and I've got to spend a lot of time looking at them and spending a lot of time trying to fix it over the next five games."

The Celtics owned a 19-point second-half lead Saturday in Detroit, but the Pistons rallied and Boston, maybe sensing another game slipping away, couldn't catch itself.

Down two in the closing moments, Bayless dribbled the ball across half court and, having made his first five 3-pointers of the game, he pulled up over Rodney Stuckey on the right wing. The ball got about halfway down the cylinder before catching a bit of back iron and ricocheting from back to front to back again before popping out as an incredulous Bayless pounded the floor in frustration.

At this point of the season, with Boston eliminated from postseason contention and lottery-bound, every loss aids the Celtics' chance at a higher draft pick. That doesn't make it any easier on Stevens to stomach those close calls.

Here's what we know:

• The Celtics are 14-32 in games in which they either led or trailed by five points during the final five minutes of the fourth quarter. Those 46 games are tied for second-most in the league behind only Toronto (51), and Boston's .304 winning percentage in that category is second-worst to only basement-dwelling Milwaukee (.237 winning percentage in 38 such games).

• Narrow that criteria to the final three minutes of a one-possession game (+/- 3 points) and Boston is 11-25 (.306 winning percentage), while still tied for the second-most instances (36). What stands out is the Celtics' offensive struggles in those games, with Boston shooting just 32.8 percent during that crunch-time block and being a league-worst minus-55 in plus/minus under that scenario.

• In the final minute of a one-possession game (+/- 3 points), Boston is 10-20 and its stat line is even more cringe-worthy as the Celtics shoot 27.5 percent and have been outscored by 25.

• What's maybe most incredible is how much Boston struggles in coming from behind in close games. When tied or behind by five or fewer points during the final five minutes of a game, the Celtics are just 6-32 (.158 winning percentage). When the Celtics are tied or down by three or fewer entering the final 30 seconds of a game, they are 2-19 (.095 winning percentage).

In the big picture, Boston's problem is simple: The team simply doesn't make enough plays when it matters most. Truth be told, Stevens would prefer his team play well enough over the first 43 minutes of games to prevent it from even being in those tight situations so often. But good teams find ways to win those sorts of games and Stevens wants his team to thrive when they are in clutch situations.

"More often than not, we haven't made enough plays in those moments," Stevens said. "And sometimes it's just a matter of bounces, right? You hate to put in all this time and effort and then say a bounce didn't go your way.

"But Jerryd's ball was down the other night. I will say this, I watched it about 20 times and I was like, 'Just go in!' hoping it would. But it didn't, so you reconvene and you try to control what you can control so that you are not in that position where you have to rely on a bounce to get a win."

The Celtics own a 23-54 record, the fourth-worst mark in basketball. Boston needs at least one win over its final five games to ensure finishing with a better mark than the 2006-07 squad (24-58), which owns the second-worst winning percentage in franchise history (only the 1996-97 Celtics were worse at 15-67).

You can tell it eats at Stevens that his team will be lumped with some of the most unsuccessful squads in franchise history. Boston has been competitive enough in many games to deserve a better fate, or at least be remembered more fondly.

Stevens hopes the lasting image of his team isn't of the group that got throttled in Washington last week, but the scrappy bunch that found a way to win in Miami on a last-second buzzer-beater. These last five games offer a chance to show progress in an area of concern.

"I hope that we don't look at the Washington game and say, 'That's a normal occurrence.' It was a back-to-back, we did not play well, but hopefully we play with a better look the rest of the way and a better toughness," Stevens said.

"Based on Saturday, I feel like we will. We're talking about it all the time -- staying in the moment, playing in the moment, playing to be the very best that you can be on a given day. You know what else, a lot of these guys are young in their careers, every minute they play matters. And it matters not only for us collectively, but also for them individually."

Stevens sees these final games as a chance for his players to show they are better than their record indicates -- even if it comes at the expense of lottery position.

"It's really important to do your best and go after it every single day," Stevens said. "This is a real challenge. I talked about it the other day, you find out a lot about people with five games left in a season when you're on an eight-game losing streak.

"To be honest, we were in a lot of those games and played pretty darn well. The two games that kind of stick with you are the Washington and Philly games because I didn't feel that we played as well. But we will find out a lot about ourselves.

"It's challenging. It's a challenging thing for us as coaches. It's a challenging thing for the players. The task is the task. And you get up the next morning and go after it."

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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