Just two days after the world could not stop singing the Celtics’ praises after a loss, of all things, the green team went out Wednesday and laid an egg in the second half in the Big Easy. With the aid of a putrid third quarter, in which they shot 5-for-18 and mustered all of 12 points, the Celtics squandered a comfortable lead for the second time in two games and lost to the Hornets 87-86.
Unlike on Monday, though, when they watched LeBron James and the Miami Heat wipe out a 17-point lead in that demoralizing way that defending champions do, the Celtics gave way to the last-place Hornets. Until Ryan Anderson got hot in the fourth quarter, when he scored 11 of his 21 points, the Hornets seemed almost unwilling to mount a comeback. This game was decided by a Celtics collapse, not a Hornets surge.
It was yet another example of the Celtics, who were already saddled with losses to the Bobcats, Cavs, Pistons and Kings, playing down to their competition. Yes, they have proved they can play with the likes of the Heat. They have also proved they can get swept in the season series by the Hornets.
“We thought we were going to win the game when we got the lead,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers told reporters matter-of-factly. “You could see it. I told our guys that at halftime. You could see it in the middle of the second quarter. We went from being a solid, just good-looking basketball team, to ‘Showtime.’ I believe in the basketball gods. I believe when you mess with the game, the game messes you up. I thought we deserved it.”
The Celtics led 60-47 on a 3-pointer by Paul Pierce less than two minutes into the third quarter. From there, the wheels effectively came off. They were outscored 20-7 over the final 10 minutes of the quarter, then fell behind to begin the fourth quarter when Jordan Crawford, who played extensively in crunchtime over Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee, failed to give much resistance as Brian Roberts, a rookie out of Dayton, scored five straight points.
When Anderson hit a jump shot midway through the fourth quarter to give New Orleans its largest lead of the game at 78-69, Pierce finally decided to do something. He hit a bank shot to get Boston going, then followed a spinning reverse layup by Kevin Garnett and a lucky scoop shot by Crawford with a personal 9-3 run to give Boston a three-point lead. After Bass tipped in his own miss to extend the advantage to 86-81, the win should have been in the bag for the Celtics. It was not, however, because nothing can be taken for granted when the Celtics are playing an awful opponent on the road.
This trend is more of an issue than some of the Celtics might like to admit. While it is true they will not see the likes of New Orleans or Charlotte in the playoffs, these losses have a tangible effect on their playoff seeding. With the Knicks and Nets both winning on Wednesday, the Atlantic Division title and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs moved a bit farther from their reach.
Most worrisome for Rivers, it does not appear to be getting better.
“We don’t learn, because we’ve done this three or four times this year,” Rivers said. “We just don’t learn. It’s disappointing. … It does get old.”
The Celtics’ timing was fortuitous, at least. Since their meltdown occurred more or less simultaneously to the Cavaliers blowing a 27-point lead and allowing the Heat’s win streak to grow to 24 consecutive games, the Celtics only had the second-most impressive disintegration of the night. But while Monday’s defeat might have been rife with silver linings to some, the disparity between Miami and Boston became plain on Wednesday. Whereas the Heat faced early adversity and came back to exert their will against the overmatched Cavs, the Celtics fell apart when the pesky Hornets offered a modicum of resistance.
As Rivers said, the Celtics have not learned, and now it might be too late. The damage has already been done in the standings. In a month, when they are opening the playoffs on the road in New York or Indiana, they will pay for lapses like these, when the opponent’s name on the marquee was not enough to quicken their pulses.