CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Boston Celtics flirted with this outcome in Toronto. They nearly met it again in Memphis. And during their third straight close road game Monday night, they landed the bad loss they narrowly missed on the previous two occasions.
This time, the Celtics did not save themselves with crunchtime execution. This time, their opponent did not miss a key shot in the final 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 a couple important ones that could have broken the game. They stayed in it, made some big plays toward the end. Crowd got into it and then it was up in the air. And they came up with it.”
Though they were still able to close a four-game road swing with a 3-1 record, the Celtics did so with three straight uneven outings at the end of the trip. After pulling out ugly two-point wins against the Toronto Raptors and the Memphis Grizzlies, they were unable to escape an upset in Charlotte. Afterward, several Celtics players agreed they showed some slippage over all three of those games, though only one of them resulted in a loss.
“I think just maybe attention to detail,” said Jrue Holiday. “Last few games we’ve kind of let that slip.”
Porziņģis echoed his teammate’s diagnosis.
“Small things,” Porziņģis said. “Small cleanups. Yeah, not giving our opponents life. We are talented and because of that sometimes you can win games just based off of that. We don’t want to become that. We want to be a team that shows up and plays the same way no matter who we’re playing against.”
The Celtics were on the second leg of a back-to-back on Monday. They were without Al Horford (rest) and Derrick White (personal reasons). After playing in Memphis on Sunday, they landed in Charlotte in the wee hours of the morning and lost one hour of rest due to the time zone difference. They had valid excuses for a sloppy performance, but do not want to be a team that provides those. Coach Joe Mazzulla has emphasized he wants the Celtics to bring their best regardless of the circumstances.
They didn’t do that over any of the final three games on the road. 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 final chance to tie the game at the end of overtime. The Celtics gave up too many second-chance baskets, including a pair over 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 leads in this league,” Mazzulla said. “There’s so many possessions and you can’t take plays off. 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 is) not a recipe for success no matter who you’re playing, especially these guys. They don’t stop playing and they can go on runs so fast and we let them go on runs. It was 100-89 and we let them go on a run.”
The Celtics held a 108-99 advantage with two minutes left in the fourth quarter but came up empty on their final four possessions of regulation while the Hornets scored on each of theirs. Two of those Charlotte buckets came on second-chance opportunities.
Even after those mishaps, Holiday had a chance to seal the game with a pair of free throws but missed both with the Celtics ahead 108-106. LaMelo Ball, who finished with 36 points and eight assists, capitalized with a hanging layup to tie the game. Boston had one last chance to win at the end of regulation, but Sam Hauser missed a contested 3-pointer after a Hornets double team forced the ball out of Tatum’s hands.
“I think just a few plays, small plays,” Porziņģis said. “Some backdoors, some offensive rebounds, some maybe not the best decision in transition. Small things adding up like this throughout the game. And we have a good, smart, pretty experienced group so we should not be making that many small errors throughout the game. And we’ll clean those up and we’ll be fine.”
The Celtics should have been fine in Charlotte. Tatum scored 31 of his 45 points in the first half. Payton Pritchard had his 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 could not stay solid long enough to hold onto either one.
To cap the Hornets’ comeback, Miles Bridges drilled a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 6.6 seconds left in overtime. Tatum drew a three-shot foul on the ensuing inbounds play, but missed the third free throw with 5.2 seconds left to leave the Celtics behind by one point. Several Boston players believed too much time ticked off the clock as 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 definitely should have been more time (on the clock),” said Porziņģis. “I guess the whistle was late, that’s why the time kept going. I don’t know, they had some explanation but it was during the game and I was like, ‘OK, it just looks like we’re going to keep going.’ There definitely should have been more time on the clock I felt like, but we had many opportunities to finish it out before that and we didn’t. So we cannot blame it on that small detail that happened.”
The Celtics could blame it on all the other small details they neglected. For the third straight game, they were less than sharp. Mazzulla actually liked how the Celtics executed their way out of trouble during Friday night’s win against Toronto, but viewed his team’s performance far differently two nights later in Memphis. He said the Celtics didn’t deserve to win the latter game “because of a lot of the stuff that we did.” Against the Grizzlies, Mazzulla’s team lost nearly all of the margins he values the most. The Celtics were outshot 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 caught up to the Celtics.
“Those guys can score in bunches and the second you relax they take advantage of it,” said Mazzulla. “When they get out and play in transition they’re a hard team to guard in the halfcourt. So it’s those little details throughout the game they test you on those margins. We’ve been good in those (during) the first 10 (games) and we let those habits slip as far as the margins, our transition defense and defensive rebounding.”
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. Even so, the players don’t want their ever-so-minor rut to fester.
“It’s easier when you actually lose the game and then you’re like, ‘OK, I have to look in the mirror,’” said Porziņģis. “Like, boom, now we can assess what went wrong. We try to do that of course after the wins but it’s not the same realistically. So this will definitely make us look in the mirror.”
(Photo of Jayson Tatum shooting over Gordon Hayward: David Jensen / Getty Images)