As their winning streak reached six games, the Celtics’ flaws were masked by victories. Wins in Toronto and Memphis over the weekend were marred by poor efforts, but the C’s kept finding ways to win anyway. Even after winning Sunday night over the Grizzlies, coach Joe Mazzulla said his team shouldn’t have won.
A night later, the Celtics got the outcome they deserved.
Through the first 13 games of this season, the Celtics had seemed to solve the crunch time woes that killed them throughout last season. But they took a big step back on Monday night. Even without Derrick White, the Celtics had more than enough to close the lowly Hornets but their bad habits resurfaced in a brutal 121-118 loss.
Jayson Tatum scored 45 points and Payton Pritchard added 21 in a big effort off the bench in the absence of White, but the Celtics’ recent run of uninspired play finally came back to haunt them in the worst moments. The Celtics led by as many as 18 but let the Hornets stick around. Then they blew a nine-point lead over the final two minutes as the Hornets forced overtime, and they didn’t make enough plays in the extra session as they saw their streak snapped.
LaMelo Ball scored 36 points with nine rebounds and eight assists to lead the undermanned and seemingly overmatched Hornets, who made enough plays to linger throughout the night before striking the Celtics in crunch time.
The Celtics led 100-89 and seemed to be in firm control after Jrue Holiday’s 3-pointer with 2:20 remaining. But then they let their foot off the gas. Mark Williams ignited the Hornets’ surge with a second-chance tip-in layup with 1:59 left before the Celtics began misfiring offensively. Ball hit a 3-pointer to make it 108-104 and then after two more Celtics misses, Williams’ second-chance layup cut Boston’s lead to two with 34 seconds remaining.
On the next possession, Holiday was fouled at the rim by Ball with 11 seconds left and went to the free throw line with a chance to make it a two-possession game. But Holiday, who committed seven turnovers in the loss, missed both free throws. They were Boston’s first two free throw misses in crunch time this season.
On the next possession, Ball’s driving layup tied the game and ultimately forced overtime after Sam Hauser’s long 3-point attempt missed.
The Celtics had four leads in overtime, including Tatum’s 3-pointer with 58 seconds left. But on the next possession, the C’s lost Gordon Hayward cutting for a game-tying dunk. Brown then missed a 3-pointer, and on the next Hornets possession, Miles Bridges drilled a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer to give them a 119-116 lead.
The C’s called timeout and got a gift as Tatum was fouled by Hayward shooting a 3-pointer. He went to the line with a chance to tie the game, but after making the first two, he missed the third. Bridges pulled down the rebound and was fouled with 1.7 seconds left. But there was some controversy. It appeared Bridges was fouled with about 3.2 seconds remaining, but the clock kept ticking. The clock was not checked by the officiating crew. The Hornets inbounded the ball again because the C’s had a foul to give and Hayward was fouled with 0.8 seconds left, which gave Boston little time to make a play after his free throws pushed Charlotte’s lead to 121-118. Bridges intercepted the final inbounds pass to clinch the Hornets’ victory.