One of the few defining features of the 2020-21 Boston Celtics has been an inability to close out games.
Entering last week, the Celtics had played a league-high 32 clutch games -- score within five points in the final five minutes -- and owned an impossibly poor mark of 11-21 in them.
So, as the Celtics enter the fourth quarter of a roller coaster season, maybe the most encouraging aspect of their current three-game winning streak has been the team’s ability to grind out some wins while rallying back from sizable deficits in the fourth quarter.
Improvements could be seen even before this recent three-game stretch. Since an embarrassing crumble against the Sacramento Kings on March 19, the Celtics own the best fourth-quarter net rating in the league while outscoring opponents by 28.6 points per 100 possessions. Over a 13-game span, Boston ranks second in fourth-quarter defensive rating (93.8) and third in fourth-quarter offensive rating (122.3).
Boston is 8-5 in that stretch.
The Celtics hadn’t been able to bolster their crunch record at the start of that surge, going 2-4 in their first six clutch games after the Kings loss. Still, they had a net rating of plus-13.6 in those tilts and finally got a couple to tip their way against the Knicks and Wolves.
The Celtics would have got a third clutch victory in Denver if they hadn’t limited the Nuggets to just eight fourth-quarter points and turned the game into a laugher.
The Celtics have won the fourth quarter in 11 of their last 12 games overall. Some of that is fool’s gold -- outscoring Philadelphia by five after trailing by as much as 21 wasn’t anything to write home about. But a team that too often crumbled at the first signs of second-half adversity is finally starting to swing back.
Even before Sunday’s win in Denver that snapped the Nuggets' eight-game winning streak, Celtics coach Brad Stevens saw positives in the way his team was responding to adversity.
"I’m looking at it more objectively of how we respond in the middle of games, the way that we’ve stayed with it," Stevens said when asked about what he found most encouraging about his team’s recent play. "Those types of things have been better of late."
A few double-digit comebacks will make any team feel better about itself. The Celtics still have to figure out why they’ve so frequently started slow -- Jayson Tatum has been criminally quiet in first quarters this season, though it’s hard to fret when he routinely carries the team over the final 36 minutes -- and Boston is still hunting for a consistency that has evaded the team all season long.
But progress is progress for a team that is still stuck at No. 7 in the East as a cluster of six teams within three games of each other continue to jockey for spots 4-9.
Sunday’s win in Denver ranks among Boston's best wins of the year. The Celtics couldn’t get any 3-pointers to fall in the first half but still stuck close, then started a feverish rally late in the third quarter. Denver improbably waved a white flag as Boston raced away in the fourth.
The Celtics own a winning streak of more than two games for only the third time this season. Little about the team’s inconsistent ways this season suggests that Celtics fans should get too excited about a small streak.
But this stretch does feel slightly different than other encouraging glimpses this year. Tatum looked like a true superstar while putting up 53 points against the Wolves. Tristan Thompson has infused some physicality to Boston’s back line and was maybe the primary reason the team rallied against the Knicks. Romeo Langford has been solid defensively with that second unit as well. Grant Williams turned in one of his best performances in Denver and it started with confronting JaMychal Green for a hard foul on Langford that showed a rare bit of teammates going to bat for each other.
The Celtics are hopeful they can be fully healthy whenever Evan Fournier is able to emerge from health and safety protocols. Stevens has routinely expressed hope that his team will get at least a small regular-season window to see what this group is capable of when everyone is available. There is a belief, internally, that a lot of what has ailed this team can be cured with better health and continuity.
But it’s getting close to crunch time and the Celtics have to show they’ve truly changed their ways.
Boston needs to figure out how to bottle up its fourth-quarter energy from this stretch. Every game in the playoffs seems to be a clutch game and the Celtics need to play with the poise they've shown lately, and not the sort of energy that defined their season in a negative way through the first three quarters of the year.