Near the end of all four games on their recent trip to the Southwest, the Red Claws held a lead.

Three times, they wound up losing.

On Thursday night, they returned to the Expo but again saw a late lead slip through their fingers as the Windy City Bulls beat Maine 106-105 before a crowd of 1,182.

The Claws (3-8) overcame a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter with a spirited comeback that put them ahead 105-102 with two minutes remaining.

They didn’t score again.

“We can’t keep giving away these games,” Coach Brandon Bailey said. “Our record could easily be flipped right now, if we just find a way to finish. And a lot of that late-game execution is on the head coach.”

Bailey acknowledged a critical mistake when the Red Claws rebounded a Windy City miss with the game tied and 20 seconds remaining. Instead of dribbling up the court, the Claws called time and used their option to advance the ball to the frontcourt, reducing their shot clock to 14 seconds. Had they simply not called time or waited until the game clock had wound down to 14, they could have waited to take the last shot.

Instead, P.J. Dozier’s driving attempt didn’t fall and Windy City had a chance to win.

Kaiser Gates drove hard and was stripped of the ball by Dozier, but fouled in the process. Gates missed his first free throw but made his second with 3.8 seconds remaining to break the tie.

A desperation floater by Celtics assignee Brad Wanamaker caught front iron at the buzzer and the Bulls escaped.

“It’s just something I did wrong,” Bailey said. “We should get the last shot.”

Dozier finished with 30 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds in the first game without Maine’s other two-way NBA player. Earlier Thursday, the Celtics released Red Claws point guard and leading scorer Walt Lemon Jr.

“He’s a big part of our team, a big part of what we’ve been doing,” Dozier said, “but we have multiple guys who can step up to new and bigger roles. That’s what we’re going to have to do.”

Dozier stepped comfortably into the role of point guard Thursday night, opening the game with the first of three successful alley-oop assists to Dallas Lauderdale as the Claws opened a 10-point lead.

But Windy City adjusted and surged to a 62-42 advantage early in the third quarter. It was 89-72 when Rawle Alkins (31 points) sank a 3-pointer to start the fourth.

Dozier and Wanamaker (23 points) sparked the comeback, with Dozier hitting a deep trey with 3:10 left to put Maine ahead 103-102 as the Bulls missed five consecutive free throws.

“We know we have the capability to always fight back,” Dozier said. “It’s just trying to not put ourselves in that position.”

The Red Claws return to action Saturday night at the Expo against the Capital City Go-Go, the new G League affiliate of the Washington Wizards.

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or

[email protected]

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH

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