BOSTON – After racing out to a 28-point lead, the Boston Celtics were feeling good on Friday night. But the positive vibes quickly came crashing down as the Brooklyn Nets spoiled the party. Brooklyn outscored Boston 100-68 through the final three quarters, mounting the biggest comeback in the NBA this season.
The hot Celtics start wasn’t a typical one, however. Rather than sinking their threes and playing staunch defense, they were getting easy layups, and the Nets were missing open looks. After the game, Joe Mazzulla noted this issue, revealing he had a bad feeling things were going to swing Brooklyn’s way eventually.
“I actually was more nervous in the beginning of the game, because we shot less threes, and they were shooting more,” Mazzulla said. “They were 2-for-11, and we were only 3-for-6. So, I was actually worried, because we were scoring, but it wasn’t because we were making shots. It was because we were getting layups. And they are a very analytically-sound team. And so, I knew the tide was going to shift because they were going to continue to shoot threes, and we didn’t play at a level of shooting threes and getting offensive rebounds and taking care of the ball, [and] that was going to cost us.”
The 22-point lead the Celtics held after the first quarter quickly evaporated by the end of the second, as Mazzulla’s premonitions came to fruition. Brooklyn continued to shoot threes, and more went in; Boston’s open layups went away, and their offense was unable to find its footing.
Instead of committing to the game plan that has worked for them this year, the Celtics eased up. Their defensive intensity fell off, and they became stagnant on the offensive end. What once looked like an easy win for the Celtics turned into the exact opposite. They gave the Nets an opening, and they took it, which has been an issue Boston has studied since the beginning of the season.
“They went to their switching defense. We got a little stagnant on the offensive end, turned the ball over,” Mazzulla explained. “We talked a lot about end games, ending quarters, ending halves. And you know, in the beginning of the year, we watched a lot of film on when you give teams the light of day at the end of a quarter or end of a half in the NBA, it’s going to be a close game. And so, we got off to a really good start, playing the right way. We just let our foot off the gas, and it cost us.”
Holding leads is something the Celtics have struggled with for years now. Just this season, they’ve blown multiple leads, and despite still winning some of those games, they made life a lot harder on themselves.
In their first loss of the season on October 24, the Celtics held a 19-point first-quarter lead against the Chicago Bulls, but they ended up losing by 18.
On January 24, they held a 14-point lead against the Miami Heat but faltered in the fourth quarter and lost by five points.
And perhaps most infamously, there was the near-disaster on December 13 against the Los Angeles Lakers. Boston was up by 20 points in the third, blew the lead, and was down by 13 in the fourth — all just to come back and win in overtime.
Regardless of the outcome, the Celtics have been blowing leads all season.
“It’s definitely happened more times than we want, obviously,” Derrick White said. “Everything was happening so easy there at the beginning of the game. And then they just started playing harder, and we didn’t do a good job of responding. That’s just on us as a group and each individual. So, we gotta find a way to play 48 minutes. Whether we’re up 28, [in] a back-and-forth game.”
And while this is certainly a problem the Celtics need to address, huge comebacks are happening around the entire lead. In the past week alone, the Portland Trail Blazers blew a 23-point lead against the Golden State Warriors, and the Dallas Mavericks blew a 27-point lead against the Lakers. The dog days of the 82-game season have started to bite teams in the proverbial butt.
Regardless, if the Celtics hope to complete their goal of winning a championship, they need to find a way to hold onto leads. And while Mazzulla isn’t too worried about his team after Friday night, he is concerned with their ability to avoid falling victim to the same type of loss in the future.
“You have to be able to handle it. You can’t be comfortable,” said Mazzulla. “It’s hard to say. It’s really hard to do. But you try to work through situations like that so that you say, ‘Oh, is it really preventable?’ No, it’s not. Every team has done it. So, to me, the area of growth, the opportunity, comes in making sure it doesn’t happen again if we’re in that situation again.”