By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics had plenty of chances to win Sunday night in Phoenix. But a lack of focus in the game’s final minute cost them what could turn out to be the difference in the standings come the end of the season.
After erasing a 15-point third quarter deficit, the Celtics tried to coast to a victory against the young Suns. A victory seemed all but in the bag with rookie Jaylen Brown made his way to the free throw line with Boston up 104-102 with 20 seconds to go. But he missed his first of two freebies, and an Eric Bledsoe driving layup cut Boston’s lead to just one.
No problem, right? Isaiah Thomas was reinserted into the game and immediately fouled. He’s been automatic from the charity stripe, knocking down 91% of his chances. But he too missed the first of his two free throws, giving Phoenix another chance at life.
For some reason, the Celtics decided to play no defense on the Suns’ ensuing possession. Bledsoe streaked to the net with no Celtics in the paint, mimicing a player in the layup line before a game. His bucket tied things at 106-106 with just four ticks left on the clock. Overtime seemed certain, barring a dramatic game-winner by Boston. But those four seconds were just enough time for the Celtics to completely blow what should have been a comeback victory.
Jae Crowder and Thomas couldn’t connect on the inbound, with Thomas saying Crowder waited a little too long to get the ball to him. That seems like a convenient excuse, as Thomas didn’t appear focused on collecting the pass. He took his eye off the ball, and kicked it away as Marquese Chriss came charging in to press Boston’s point guard. The ball ended up in Tyler Ulis’ hands beyond the arc, and the rookie nailed the game-winner as time expired.
The Suns bench rose up in celebration, as the Celtics stood on the court stunned. It was an epic failure in just 20 seconds, featuring two blunders from the line, no semblance of defense with a two-point lead, and one horrible turnover. Add it all up and it equals one embarrassing and heartbreaking loss by a Celtics team trying to hold off the Washington Wizards for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference (Washington completed a dramatic comeback of their own over the Orlando Magic on Sunday, and trail Boston by two games in the standings).
To his credit, Crowder took the blame following the defeat.
“We should have put the game away a long time ago and they came down and executed and tied the game,” the forward told reporters. “Miscommunication on my end. I should have threw the ball into IT probably a little earlier. I put him in a bad situation and we lost the game.”
“When I looked down, I thought he would get it out quicker so we could go and then I looked away, looked back and Marquese Chriss was right there, he got a hand on it. I couldn’t get full control of it,” Thomas explained. “We should have won the game. We just made a terrible turnover at the end.
“The basketball gods were on their side tonight. He hit a crazy shot,” added Thomas.
Basketball gods had nothing to do with it. The loss falls on Boston’s late-game execution, or lack of it. It’s the kind of game they need to win down the stretch. Forget that it was a road game, forget that they were without Avery Bradley (rest/hamstring) and Al Horford (elbow). When you’re marching towards the postseason and trying to claim the second-best record in the East, you have to beat 20-win teams no matter the circumstances.
To the Celtics’ credit, they say they won’t let this loss linger. Crowder said it will be out of their minds when they arrive in L.A. for a tough Monday night matchup against the Clippers. And they certainly can’t be dwelling on their quartet of errors in the Copper State when they visit the Warriors on Wednesday.
When Sunday night’s loss could really hurt is at the end of the season, should the Wizards overtake the Celtics in the standings for that 2-seed (a daunting task for Washington, with 15 of their remaining 21 games on the road). But maybe Boston’s series of blunders it will provide a nice wake-up call that they need to step up their late-game execution.
At this point in the season, even one small mistake could have lasting ramifications in the grand scheme of things. Hopefully, the Celtics have learned that lesson.