There’s no way the Celtics can lose to the Hornets tonight. (Repeat 1,000x until losing breath. Then resume.) In all seriousness, the way the Celtics have played the last two games meant the Celtics could absolutely lose to a Hornets team clawing and scraping for a final playoff spot.
THE GAME FLOW
The Celtics couldn’t score early in this one; stop me if you’ve heard that before. And Charlotte instantly knotted the stomachs of Boston fans with strong opening defense, rebounding and easy post scoring. While the Cs quickly got back in it, they couldn’t pull ahead and the Hornets, per coach Steve Clifford’s hard-nosed blueprint, exerted defensive pressure in every area and denied our heroes any easy shots for most of the quarter. It took Boston 10 minutes to get their first lead, getting hot and hitting 6 of 9 threes (nice) by the time Q2’s opening minutes passed.
A different Celtics team than we’ve seen of late came out for the second quarter–except it wasn’t different; it’s the one we’ve known all season. The one characterized by pristine ball movement, efficiently elite offense and excellence in transition. The minuscule 4-point lead soon became an 11-point lead. Even with Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum being the scoring stars they are, and Jeremy Lamb hitting off the bench, Charlotte had no ready answer for the full-strength version of Boston. They comfortably won the rebounding and shot-percentage battles, with Isaiah and Al Horford leading the charge into halftime with a massive 17-point cushion, 71-54.
(I.T. fell down and grimaced in pain several times throughout the frame, though. Not good. He’s at least somewhat bodily fatigued by the burden he shoulders.)
Slight trepidation in the third quarter: Despite the Celtics maintaining their lead, the Hornets held off Isaiah’s scoring in his limited minutes, and while Kelly Olynyk rebounded from a string of bad performances to score well, Avery couldn’t buy a shot (and lacked his usual pep). Crowder and Horford were also unable to continue their successes from the first half, and the Batum-Walker backcourt battery chipped away at their deficit. But Cs bench contributions from Jonas Jerebko and Jaylen Brown maintained the advantage, the latter look particularly comfortable at times with a few more-or-less undefended dunks.
Nothing is ever easy for the Celtics. This is frankly their own fault–they’re very good, but simply not good enough to coast against halfway competent teams like the Hornets, for reasons we’ve catalogued endlessly at this point. Batum seriously heated up, with Kemba and Lamb following suit. (Lamb’s transformation from OKC irrelevance to essential Charlotte cog is admirable.) More importantly, on the defensive end, Batum, Marvin Williams, $54 Million Dollar Whiteboy Cody Zeller and “Four-Draft Picks, Per Sources” Kaminsky blacked out Boston’s scoring.
And about halfway through Q4, Charlotte completed their comeback. And then they led by 7. And Boston looked like the humbled, discombobulated mess of the past two games again. As Isaiah, Horford and Marcus Smart did their best to will the team to victory with shooting and canny defense, Olynyk ruined the goodwill in my mind he’d regained during this game by fouling out on some dumb shit.
With Kelly out, the game belonged to the small-ball unit: Marcus/Al/I.T./Jae/Avery. Boston regained their lead and Smart kept plays alive when they’d otherwise have died, and got breaks on unfortunate mistakes like Bradley fouling Batum on a 3-attempt (Batum missed one of his FTs) and no-calls on Charlotte’s physicality (they didn’t halt the momentum very much). Bradley’s shot, absent for most of the contest, returned right on time and he joined the other starters in double figures as I.T. took control. A stupid foul on Smart and last-possession blown jumper by Brian Roberts sealed the Hornets’ doom and gave the Celtics a much-needed 121-114 win.
That was not what one calls a particularly commendable win. Boston led by all major conventional metrics–FG percentage, 3-point shooting, rebounding and assists–and only had two more turnovers, with 9 to Charlotte’s 7, but had too many stretches of looking lackadaisical and sloppy for a team about to enter the postseason.
Perhaps an inaccurate depiction of his overall massive impact, but a nice shake/bake and cut to the hole.
Isaiah Thomas: 32 points on 56 percent shooting, nearly a third of them earned in the 4th. Also 6 assists and 2 rebounds.
Kelly Olynyk: A decent all-around bounce-back game for #futuremagicplayer K.O. – 13-11-4 with a block and no turnovers – despite how it ended.