By the time the Celtics injected some energy and passion into their play, it was too late. The deficit was 18 points, and they needed to be perfect in the final 12 minutes to give themselves an opportunity to compensate for the first three quarters.
But nothing about this Celtics team is perfect. With a handful of chances to pull off a dramatic rally, they were unable to capitalize. Three missed free throws by Kevin Garnett, two inexplicable 3-point attempts by Rajon Rondo, and a vanishing act from Paul Pierce.
These are your Celtics, so erratic that they can play three listless quarters, respond with an inspired fourth, and yet keep the TD Garden faithful thirsting for the comebacks of the past.
Right now, they are incapable of such heroics. The Memphis Grizzlies are too good, have played together for too long, and weathered the Celtics’ flurry, getting 15 points from ex-Celtic Tony Allen in a 93-83 victory Wednesday night.
It was the Celtics’ fourth consecutive defeat, all by double digits.
Coach Doc Rivers kept the locker room closed for several minutes after the game, but he seemed more exasperated than angry. The Grizzlies shot 34.3 percent in the second half, but still outscored the Celtics, 43-42.
When the Celtics slip defensively, they seemingly pay for every mistake. When they improve defensively, they can’t score.
“I told them, whatever we’re doing wrong, it’s not going to get fixed in a day,” Rivers said. “I thought we played in stretches where you like the effort at the beginning of the game. We played terrific defense [in the second] half but we couldn’t make shots. We didn’t convert on anything.”
The Grizzlies labored to score in the fourth quarter after the Celtics increased their defensive intensity, but it was too late. Memphis shot 53.6 percent in the first three quarters and held a 75-59 lead.
The Celtics sliced the deficit to 83-78, with a 7-0 run capped by consecutive Jason Terry 3-pointers, with 4:52 left. But after Allen countered with two free throws, Garnett had a chance to again cut it to a two-possession game with 2:56 remaining but missed both free throws.
In his last six games, Garnett is shooting 41.8 percent from the field and averaging 11.6 points. With Rondo also struggling offensively, the scoring onus is being placed on Pierce, who had 2 points in the second half.
“I thought we had good shots,” Garnett said. “I’ve got to balance it out between being offensively minded and defensively minded. Playing against one of the best forwards in the world and that being Zach [Randolph], it’s like a bear fight. I never once really balanced it out of being offensive-minded. So, I have to do a better job of that. I’ve got to.”
When asked if he is concerned about the Celtics’ 14-17 record and eight losses in the last 10 games, Garnett said, “This is disturbing. It’s part of [a season], but a loss is a loss and it hurts. Nothing is good about a loss.”
Avery Bradley finished with 4 points in 20 minutes in his return from surgery on both shoulders. He played tough early defense on Mike Conley, but the Grizzlies still shot 61.1 percent in the first half, scoring 28 of their 50 points in the paint.
The Grizzlies were led by Conley’s 23 points and Rudy Gay’s 19. Memphis outrebounded Boston, 39-27, overall, and never trailed after taking a 34-33 lead with nine minutes left in the second quarter.
And when the Celtics were late on a defensive switch, the result was generally an open 3-pointer. The Grizzlies were 8 for 18 from long range, and teams are shooting 48.2 percent from beyond the arc against the Celtics in the last four games.
“Teams are making us pay,” Rondo said. “When we play good defense, they have great ball movement and a guy gets a wide-open 3 and makes it. It messes your confidence up defensively, but you’ve still got to go back in there and keep [involved] in every other possession.”
The momentum from Bradley’s return and the first home game of the new year disappeared when the Celtics turned into their bumbling selves in the second quarter, allowing Memphis to go on a 15-3 run for a 44-36 lead.
The Celtics did have a spark after two days off and a spirited practice on Tuesday. Pierce scored 12 points in the first quarter, including three 3-pointers. But teammates struggled to make open shots, especially Garnett, who missed six of his first seven field goal attempts, and finished 5 for 14.
Bradley scored the Celtics’ first basket on a backdoor layup one minute into the game. But predictably, he looked like a player who had missed seven months, running out of gas after defending the speedy Conley.
“Avery was terrific on the ball. Avery’s going to help us, you could see that,” Rivers said. “And that’ll be immediate for us. When we’re struggling for points and needed somebody offensively — and Avery will get that, too — you could see him struggling with his shot a little bit. But he’s going to be a big help for us.”