CHARLOTTE, NC — The Boston Celtics are flirting with this result in Toronto. They were about to meet again in Memphis. And during their third consecutive close road game on Monday night, they suffered a heavy loss that they almost missed the last two times.
This time, the Celtics couldn’t save themselves through crunchtime execution. This time, their opponent did not miss a key shot in the last seconds. After taking a double-digit lead midway through the fourth quarter, Boston allowed the Charlotte Hornets to come back and steal a 121-118 overtime affair.
“We didn’t get some important stops and they stayed in the game,” said Kristaps Porziņģis. “We just didn’t get some key things that could have broken the game. They stayed at it, made some big plays at the end. The crowd got into it and then it was up in the air. And they knew it.”
Although they still managed to close out a four-game road swing with a 3-1 record, the Celtics did so with three straight lopsided outings at the end of the trip. After pulling ugly two-point wins against the Toronto Raptors and Memphis Grizzlies, they couldn’t escape the upset in Charlotte. Afterward, several Celtics players agreed that they showed some slippage in all three of those games, even though only one resulted in a loss.
“I think maybe the attention to detail,” Jrue Holiday said. “The last few games, we let that go.”
Porzingis echoed his teammate’s diagnosis.
“Little things,” said Porziņģis. “A little cleaning. Yes, not giving life to our opponents. We are talented and because of that sometimes you can win games just based on that. We don’t want to be that. We want to be a team that shows up and plays the same way no matter who our opponent is.
The Celtics are in the second leg of a back-to-back on Monday. Al Horford (rest) and Derrick White (personal reasons) are out. After playing in Memphis on Sunday, they landed in Charlotte at dawn and missed an hour of layover due to the time zone difference. They have valid excuses for a sloppy performance, but don’t want to be the team that gives it up. Coach Joe Mazzulla emphasized that he wants the Celtics to bring their best regardless of the circumstances.
They haven’t done that in any of the last three road games. In Charlotte, the Celtics missed too many free throws, including a pair by Holiday that would have iced the game in regulation and one by Jayson Tatum that would have tied the game with 5.2 seconds left in overtime. The Celtics committed too many turnovers, including one by Holiday on an inbounds pass when his team had one last chance to tie the game at the end of overtime. The Celtics gave up more baskets in the second half, including a pair in the final two minutes of regulation and another key one with 2:13 left in overtime.
“Transition, offensive rebounds, little things that go into keeping the leaders in this league,” Mazzulla said. “There are a lot of possessions and you can’t play. I thought we just gave up transition and gave up offensive rebounds. We had 29 points in transition given up, 20 second chance points, 17 offensive rebounds. (It) not a recipe for success no matter who you play, especially these guys. They don’t stop playing and they can keep running really hard and we let them run. It was 100-89 and we let them in run.”
The Celtics held a 108-99 advantage with two minutes left in the fourth quarter but fumbled their last four possessions in regulation as the Hornets scored on each of them. Both of Charlotte’s buckets came on second-chance opportunities.
Even after those mishaps, Holiday had a chance to seal the game with two free throws but missed both to give the Celtics a 108-106 lead. LaMelo Ball, who finished with 36 points and eight assists, took advantage of a hanging layup to tie the game. Boston had one last chance to win at the end of regulation, but Sam Hauser missed a 3-pointer after a Hornets double team forced the ball out of Tatum’s hands.
“I think only a few games, small games,” said Porziņģis. “Some backdoors, some offensive rebounds, some maybe not the best decision in transition. Little things add up like this throughout the game. And we have a good, smart, pretty experienced group so that we shouldn’t make a lot of little mistakes throughout the game. And we’ll clean it up and we’ll be good.
The Celtics would be good in Charlotte. Tatum scored 31 of his 45 points in the first half. Payton Pritchard had the most productive game of the season with 21 points, six rebounds and three assists. Mazzulla’s team built an 18-point lead in the second quarter and an 11-point lead in the fourth, but couldn’t hang on long enough to hold on to both.
To end the Hornets’ comeback, Miles Bridges made a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 6.6 seconds left in overtime. Tatum drew a three-shot foul on the next inbounds play, but missed the third free throw with 5.2 seconds left to put the Celtics up by one point. Many Boston players thought time was running out when Hauser fouled Brandon Miller on the resulting rebound. The official ruling was that Hauser committed the foul with 1.7 seconds left.
“I think there should be more time (on the clock),” Porziņģis said. “The whistle has gone too long, so time is running out. I don’t know, they had an explanation but it was during the game and I was like, ‘OK, I guess we’ll continue.’ There should have been more time on the clock I felt, but we had a lot of opportunities to finish it before that and we didn’t. So we can’t blame it on the little detail that happened. “
The Celtics can blame it on other small details they neglected. For the third game in a row, they weren’t very sharp. Mazzulla certainly liked how the Celtics came out of trouble during Friday night’s win over Toronto, but had a very different view of his team’s performance two nights later in Memphis. He said the Celtics didn’t deserve to win the last game “because of a lot of things we did.” Against the Grizzlies, Mazzulla’s team lost almost all the margins he valued so much. The Celtics lost 95-77. They attempted 31 3-pointers compared to 44 for Memphis. They were outrebounded on the offensive glass 14-9 while committing eight more turnovers than the Grizzlies.
In Charlotte, some similar issues reached the Celtics.
“Those guys can score in bunches and the second you relax they take advantage of it,” Mazzulla said. “When they come out and play in transition, they’re hard to guard in the halfcourt. So the little details throughout the game they test you on the margins. We were good with those (during) the first 10 (games) and we let the habits slip down to the margins, our transition defense and rebounding defense.
Despite not loving their own recent play, the Celtics had a 6-game winning streak before falling to Charlotte. They finished Monday night with a league-best plus-10.6 net rating and a league-leading 11-3 record. Zooming out, the team has put together a great start to the season. However, players don’t want their little rut to get worse.
“It’s easier when you lose the game and then you’re like, ‘OK, I have to look in the mirror,'” Porziņģis said. “Dude, boom, now we can assess what happened. We tried to will do that of course after the wins but it’s not the same in reality. So it will definitely make us look in the mirror.”
(Photo of Jayson Tatum shooting Gordon Hayward: David Jensen / Getty Images)