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Late-Game Execution? Never Heard Of It...

Stop me if I'm sounding like a broken record, but the Celtics once again crumbled down the stretch and lost a close one at the TD Garden tonight - this time to the New Orleans Pelicans.

Don't freak out, Jordan.
Don't freak out, Jordan.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

All 48 minutes of a basketball game matter equally. The last might get more scrutiny and more SportsCenter highlights than the first 47, but they all count the same on the scoreboard, and it's irrational to obsess over "crunch time" more than any other period of a game. I know this. Hell, I've spent most of my natural-born life arguing it.

But man.

The Celtics have found themselves on the losing end of an inordinate number of close games this season, and it's only human nature to think each time that things may have gone differently, if not for a couple of last-minute mistakes. That was the storyline last week, when the Celtics lost by a point against the Detroit Pistons, and again this Monday when they fell by one to the Atlanta Hawks. Tonight, frustratingly for a C's team that's now lost six of seven, was more of the same.

The C's battled back against the New Orleans Pelicans and led for a good chunk of the fourth quarter, including 90-87 after Kris Humphries drained two free throws with 2:45 left. From there, it all crumbled, and as usual, the story was the team's miserable failure to execute down the stretch.

Jared Sullinger had a look at a game-tying buzzer-beater, a 25-footer from above the top of the key that smacked of desperation. He missed it, and he was more than happy to take the blame for himself, not foisting any onto coach Brad Stevens or his teammates.

"Brad drew it up so we'd have a lot of options," Sullinger said. "It was just a bad shot on my part."

Sullinger's good like that - a solid team player in the locker room, always willing to hold himself accountable when the situation calls for it. Sometimes, even when it doesn't.

This one's not on Sully. No - when you're a 28 percent 3-point shooter for your career and the ball ends up in your hands at the buzzer when the team needs a trey, someone else has messed up. Sullinger never should have had that opportunity. But what else can you do? Jeff Green and Jordan Crawford weren't open, and Courtney Lee - the team's best distance shooter by far at 46.8 percent - wasn't in the game.

"We had a number of different things we were trying to do, but at the end of the day, I thought New Orleans did a great job," Stevens said. "They switched everything. They had a lineup in there that could switch everything. [Anthony] Davis adds that element. When you need a 3, since without any more timeouts you can't get a two, these guys are very disciplined at guarding the 3-point line well."

Fair enough - the Pelicans did guard the final play well. But as a team, they've allowed opposing shooters to hit 35.3 percent of their treys this season, right around the league average of 35.8. This isn't exactly the Pacers or the '08 Celtics we're talking about here. Davis can't guard five guys at once. At a certain point, Stevens and the Celtics need to take the blame.

This extends well beyond one shot, or even one game. The Celtics on the whole have struggled with late-game execution a lot this season. Crawford in particular has been painful to watch, with his penchant for dribbling around aimlessly rather than making team-oriented plays when it matters most.

But again, this isn't about one guy - player or coach. It's a systemic problem that the C's haven't developed an identity they can fall back on.

"We're not executing," Gerald Wallace said. "We're not making shots. It was all good when we were making shots, but now we have to rely on our defense and get stops, and we're not. We're just relying on trying to outscore them in the last couple seconds, or trying to make that big shot. It's not working."

Defense is a recurring theme in these postgame remarks, all across the locker room. Sullinger echoed Wallace's thoughts pretty closely, for instance.

"We just need one more stop," he said. "That's the only thing holding us back from being a team that's over .500, instead of the team that we are now. We're always missing that one more stop. We've been in games like this in almost all our losses. Once we get a couple more stops, we'll get this train rolling."

It's an easy sound bite. Defense is all about effort, and it's good TV to quip that a little bit extra energy or intensity can solve all your problems.

What's a little more difficult is admitting that your problems require deep, introspective thought. The Celtics need to figure themselves out. Offensively, what works for them and what doesn't? What options can they fall back on when everything else fails?

The C's right now are playing like a team that doesn't know that answer.

"We're getting there," Avery Bradley insisted. "Every game's close for us. That shows that we're making progress."

Sort of. But sort of not. If the Celtics are going to snap out of this losing funk anytime soon, they need to do more than work harder physically. They need to rewire their brains a little and change their approach.

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