BOSTON — Doc Rivers saw the danger level rising Monday, when the Celtics escaped an uneven performance with a win over the dreadful Bobcats. His concern grew Tuesday, when he sensed trouble in an uninspired practice stuck directly between two games against opponents who did not exactly stir echoes of legends.
Then the Celtics showed up for Wednesday’s game against the Hornets and fulfilled all of their coach’s underwhelmed expectations.
In an inconsistent effort that saw them surrender 48 points in the paint and get outrebounded by 15 boards, the Celtics squandered an early lead and lost to the Hornets 90-78. The loss snapped a six-game win streak for the Celtics, who saw their chances of a perfect homestand end against a last-place club. And Rivers saw it coming.
“We just let our guard down, I thought, a little bit,” Rivers said. “I felt it [Tuesday] and didn’t do anything about it, so I’m kicking myself more than them. I always write stuff down after practices, and my first note, I think I wrote it three times, was ‘guard down, guard down,’ and I thought we came out and played like that.”
Two days after Rajon Rondo talked about constantly being on his guard against young point guards eager to prove themselves against him, Greivis Vasquez made a mockery of Boston’s previously impenetrable perimeter defense. The Hornets point guard shook off a rough shooting start to finish with 15 points, but the breakdowns he caused with his dribble penetration off of pick and rolls went well beyond his own stat line.
Al-Farouq Aminu, Robin Lopez, Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson were highly active around the rim. That frontcourt quartet outscored Boston’s entire starting five by combining for 55 points. They also hauled in 31 rebounds, nine of which came off the offensive glass, as a group. (The Celtics had 33 rebounds as a team. Add Jason Smith‘s three boards to the total, including two offensive, and those five players outrebounded the entire Boston team all by themselves.) In some respects, it was a return to the bad old days early in the season, when the Celtics looked lost on defense, helpless on the glass and content with taking long jump shots on offense.
“They scored in the paint and we refused to go in the paint,” Rivers said. “We had an electric fence around the paint. We just settled.”
Raising any red flags over this game would be premature, however. One game does not reveal any trends, even if the issues are the same that doomed the Celtics earlier this season. The Celtics’ weaknesses still exist, even if they have done a better job of hiding those weaknesses lately. No team is immune to the occasional letdown, especially against a hot young team that has now won six of their last seven games.
The Celtics in fact may have followed the game plan too closely. The Hornets are one of the better 3-point shooting teams in the league, with Anderson, Vasquez and Roger Mason being just a few of the many shooters who can pile up points in a hurry from beyond the arc. Celtics assistant coach Mike Longabardi hammered home the message of how important it was for Boston to run the Hornets off the 3-point line, and New Orleans ended up shooting only 2-for-17 from long range.
If anything, Longabardi may have been too effective in getting his message across.
“Part of the game plan was the take the three away,” Kevin Garnett said. “They’ve got seven or eight guys that Mike went through with their stats as far as shooting the ball, so we knew that. I thought we contested a lot of shots and ran them off shots. Obviously, when you do that, you give something else up. They took advantage of that. I thought Vasquez was very aggressive when he had to [be]. They just put it together and we never could catch up after that.”
It is too simple to blame the Celtics’ loss on a bad game plan. Most of the time, holding an opponent to 11.8 percent shooting from downtown is a recipe for success. For now, attribute this defeat to a game plan that did not work for one night and a team that might not have been pumped up to play a less-than-marquee opponent. Coming off a long winning streak, the Celtics have to be afforded that much benefit of the doubt.
They are back on the practice floor on Thursday, though, and back on the TD Garden parquet on Friday. The Bulls, coached by former Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau, are capable of exposing any flaws or complacency the Celtics might have left over. Should any aspect of Wednesday’s game carry over, then it may be time for the Celtics to worry again. Until then, one loss is simply one loss.