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Late-season Celtics swoon is becoming harder to understand — and watch

Forsberg: Late-season Celtic slump becoming harder to explain — and watch originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Celtics have become a chore to watch.

The same team that fought through early season adversity to sit atop the NBA with an insanely likable cast of characters now routinely fumbles away double-digit leads and saves some of its most maddening plays for key late-game moments.

On Saturday night, while playing the second night of a back-to-back without three starters in Utah, the Celtics kicked away a 19-point lead and blew a couple of chances to steal a win in the final seconds. The loss dropped Boston to third place in the Eastern Conference as rivals Milwaukee and Philadelphia surged ahead while finding their late-season grooves.

Jayson Tatum is slumping. Robert Williams is injured. Much of what ails Boston could be alleviated when either of those two things change. But it hasn’t been pretty while waiting for Tatum to find his typical late-season groove and for Williams to work his way back from a hamstring strain.

Celtics officially clinch a playoff spot for the ninth-straight season

Ever since Williams limped off against Brooklyn on March 3, the Celtics have blown four double-digit leads in head-slapping losses to inferior competition, then went variable intensity while losing to the lowly Rockets as part of this current six-game road trip.

Maybe this is all the more jarring because, a year ago, the Celtics were the ones making a furious second-half surge and carrying their best basketball into the postseason.

This year, we’re left yearning for the team that started the season 21-5 while playing offense at a historic level. Boston is 28-18 since December 10 with an offense that ranks 15th in the NBA.

Even when they hit a first bit of adversity starting with a December loss to Golden State in a Finals rematch, this team still found a way to win ugly. Back on January 21, the Celtics had the best record in basketball, a 4.5-game lead over the 76ers, and a 5.5-game edge over the Bucks.

Boston is 14-11 since then and has slipped behind both the Bucks (21-3 in that span) and Sixers (18-6) in the East standings. The Celtics play both teams over a six-day span as part of the 10 games remaining on their regular-season schedule.

The Celtics have had bad losses but Saturday made a strong case for the most maddening. Playing without Williams, Al Horford, and Marcus Smart certainly complicated matters. But Boston came completely unglued in the second half and some questionable late-game decisions accentuated the team’s late-game woes.

Head coach Joe Mazzulla, now 7-6 since having the interim tag removed before coaching at All-Star weekend, is in the spotlight because of Boston’s inability to close out games. He does not deserve all the blame here as he is not the one chucking lazy 3-pointers on one end and failing to box out on the other, although he might need to firmly remind his players that there needs to be more sustained effort to avoid these lapses.

But Mazzulla does have some blind spots that took center stage on Saturday. That includes:

Lack of Derrick White in crucial moments

The Celtics have played 162 minutes of crunch-time basketball — score within five points, final five minutes. White, who you can make the case has been Boston’s third best player this season, has been on the floor for 55.4 of those minutes (34.2 percent). Boston has played 60 minutes of overtime this season and White has been on the court for 16.3 of them (27.2 percent).

With three starter-level point guards on the roster when you add in Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon, it certainly complicates finding time for all three players in key spots. Mazzulla has understandably leaned hard on Smart and Brogdon in late-game spots.

But White’s fourth-quarter DNP on Saturday night was downright baffling. The Celtics were playing without three starters, including Smart, and could not find any time for White? Yes, the Celtics needed size but White is one of the team’s best decision-makers and can often negate the size he gives up with his basketball IQ. He needs to be on the floor more regardless of matchups.

Of the 166 players who have appeared in at least 20 crunch-time games this season, White ranks ninth in the NBA with a net rating of +20.1. Smart is at +10.3 while Brogdon is at +0.3 in their crunch-time minutes.

Mazzulla recently acknowledged that he needs to lean harder on White in those moments and yet White continues to sit on the bench in big spots.

Not running more plays for Jaylen Brown in key spots

Since the All-Star break, Jaylen Brown has been Boston’s most consistent and efficient scorer. As Tatum navigates a rare March slump, masked Brown has put the Celtics’ offense on his shoulders.

But no matter how much of a groove Brown is in, it feels like the final sets are always designed for Tatum. On Saturday night, Tatum didn’t have a single second-half field goal and yet both of Boston’s designed plays in the final 35 seconds were scripted for Tatum.

We’re rarely going to quibble with putting the ball in your best player’s hands with the game in the balance. But the Celtics have two superstars and so rarely take advantage of it. Tatum draws an inordinate amount of attention in late-game situations and Boston has not been able to take advantage of it by consistently drawing up plays that feature Tatum as a decoy.

Boston’s end-of-game sets, which lately always seem to start with Tatum 50 feet from the hoop in the backcourt, have lacked inspiration in general.

Too much 2-for-1

Mazzulla loves math. And teams should absolutely strive to take advantage of the possibility of extra possessions. But the Celtics too often rush into late-quarter actions and settle for poor looks just for the opportunity to get extra possessions.

Worse yet, the Celtics have routinely been burned by buzzer-beaters from opponents who, after Boston rushes through possessions, typically burn the Celtics with a last-second heave. End of quarters have been a sore spot for Boston in general and the team needs to prioritize quality over quantity more often.

For all the doom and gloom as Boston endures these maddening losses, they still control their own fate. Wins over Milwaukee and/or Philadelphia could go a long way in determining where Boston lands in the seedings. The Celtics are always one Tatum hot streak away from looking like the best team in basketball again.

But when Tatum slumps it accentuates all the little issues that have festered for this team. It puts a spotlight on a coach that is enduring many of the bumps that most first-year coaches encounter (although most don’t wear the championship expectations that Mazzulla inherited).

Boston’s focus has to be better before the postseason arrives. Mazzulla has to be crisper with his rotations and playcalling on a playoff stage where coaches are truly judged (and where he’ll be playing chess against more experienced coaches).

The Celtics haven’t had their mojo for a while now. The vibes are not nearly as good as they once were. There’s a lot to figure out and only 10 games to go.

It’s been a tough watch lately but much will be forgiven and forgotten if the Celtics can tap into what made them great. This team desperately needs to figure out how to get back to playing with more focus, more intensity, and — most importantly — more joy.

Because it’s not there right now for the team — or the viewer.