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Even In Victory, Celtics' Late-Game Execution Shows Room For Improvement

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The Celtics beat the Cavaliers today in a 103-100 squeaker. Given the way they dominated the first three quarters, the last-second win is no cause for celebration.

Keep chucking, Jared.
Keep chucking, Jared.
Jared Wickerham

BOSTON – If you tuned in just in time to catch the final possession of the Celtics' tilt this afternoon with the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers, you'd probably walk away pretty satisfied with the way things turned out. The C's wielded a two-point lead over the Cavs, 102-100, and they protected it with pride.

Brandon Bass made the defensive play of the game with a block of a driving layup attempted by Dion Waiters, and then after Avery Bradley padded the lead at the free-throw line, the C's made one last stand by contest a desperate Earl Clark 3 at the buzzer. The Boston victory, a 103-100 final, reflected a complete, determined team effort in the final seconds.

Then again, that's far from the whole story.

"We played exceptionally well in the fourth quarter," coach Brad Stevens said postgame with a smile. "For 18.3 seconds."

So here's the thing. For all the guts and grit and grind and whatnot that helped the Celtics close out this win at the end, there was a whole lot of slop in the minutes that preceded it. The C's were at home, coming off five days of rest and playing a Cleveland team that was 10-18 (1-5 in its last six) and without a key big man in the freshly suspended Andrew Bynum. They should have won this game by 20. And for a while, it looked like they would - they were up by that much as late as 1:02 left in the third quarter, when a Kris Humphries 20-footer put them up 84-64.

Then, a lot of ugly things happened. The Cavaliers made a rapid fourth-quarter run to close the gap. On paper, that run looked insane. On the floor, though, it was pretty understandable. When you throw your offensive blueprint out the window and just start freestyling, things can deteriorate quick.

"It should have been promoted as part of our holiday package," said Stevens, still a jokester. "Every game is an adventure. 'Green runs deep, hashtag, every game's an adventure' - that would be a great thing to promote. Maybe we can work on that. Get that on the website.

"We've got to get better in those situations," he continued. "We have been for the majority of the time, but for whatever reason, the last two weeks we haven't. I just didn't think we've played purposefully when it's mattered. We have to balance this idea of playing with maturity with still playing with a clear mind, and loose. It's a hard balance."

Is it ever. In case you think I'm overstating the Celtics' late-game disarray, here's a rundown of the team's final 14 possessions: a turnover, a miss, free throws, free throws, a miss, a turnover, a miss, a turnover, an actual honest-to-God field goal made by Jordan Crawford, a missed Jared Sullinger 3 for some reason, two more free throws, another miss, another missed Sully 3, and finally two more free throws from Bradley to ice the win.

Besides Crawford's bucket - which by the way was an ugly, off-balance shot that no one expected to go in - the Celtics' only offense was one of blindly attacking the rim and praying for the whistle. To their credit, they got it several times. But that's not good enough. The C's final 6:35 consisted of nine points in 14 possessions - an efficiency stat that would make even the hapless Cavs look like the Jordan-era Bulls.

"Sometimes you get on your heels, and we've got to figure out a way not to get that way," Stevens said. "I think sometimes when you win a game like this, that helps you the next time. Obviously, there's that tension of 'Oh no, don't lose,' and that's no way to live life. That's no way to play. But it's a factor."

The bright side of all this, of course, is that the Celtics came through when it mattered and polished off a victory. And the C's tend to have a positive mindset - always focused on improving. So predictably, they're looking to learn more from those final 18.3 seconds than from everything else.

"They made their run, but we kept our composure," Jeff Green said. "We were able to get the key block from Brandon and then make those clutch free throws. It was key for us to stay focused and keep our composure, because we knew they were going to make a run."

"I don't think we really get concerned about it," Jared Sullinger added, referring to teams' late runs. "We're just kind of cool, calm and collected. Everybody's going to make their run in this league - we just have to learn how to keep a lead."

Indeed, they do. And it's possible that being cool and collected isn't the answer. For the Celtics, changing their approach might require a renewed focus mentally.

This team has shown the ability to execute well for 12 minutes at a time - sometimes even 24 or 36. Following through for a complete-game effort might require a little more digging.

"We haven't played the right way for the whole game," Stevens said. "Whether that's the first half or the fourth quarter, we have to become a better team for 48 minutes. We've got a lot of minutes we've got to get better at."