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The defensive-minded Boston Celtics and offensive-juggernaut Charlotte Hornets were primed for a thrilling, nationally televised matchup Wednesday night, after already delivering an exciting overtime battle in October, which ended in Boston’s favor.
However, the shorthanded Celtics wound up being overmatched 111-102 this time around, as several unexpected obstacles got in the way of them pulling out a win in front of their home crowd at TD Garden.
Both teams entered the day with the possibility of playing at full strength, but that changed about two hours before tip-off when both Marcus Smart (return to competition reconditioning) and Rob Williams (personal absence) were ruled out for the Celtics.
As if missing two of their best defenders against the highest-scoring team in the East wasn’t enough of a hindrance, Boston soon found itself in foul trouble with both Jayson Tatum and Grant Williams being in such a position for most of the game.
Unsurprisingly, the Hornets' well-oiled offensive machine took advantage. Former Celtics point guard Terry Rozier logged a game-high 28 points and 10 assists, Miles Bridges added 22 points and seven rebounds, and LaMelo Ball delivered a triple-double of 15 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists to lead the winning effort.
Boston got off to a six-point lead in the first quarter, but their momentum shifted soon after Tatum was whistled for two fouls near the end of the frame. Tatum then picked up foul No. 3 just a little more than two minutes into the second quarter and wound up sitting for most of that frame, during which the Celtics were outscored 31-21.
“I think foul trouble hurt us with our aggression,” said C's head coach Ime Udoka. “Guys started playing safe a little bit there. But that's a team that really pushes the pace in transition and has multiple scorers in the half-court, so it's going to be tough enough if you have all your bodies and are not in foul trouble. We had to scramble some lineups with Rob and Marcus being out, but Jayson and Grant being in foul trouble put us in some disadvantageous positions.”
Despite being in foul trouble, the Celtics still hung around for most of the game. They managed to have one of their best passing nights of the season, dishing out 27 assists on 39 made field goals; however, they also missed a bunch of open looks, which led Udoka to believe “we could have had 35 or more” assists if some of those shots had fallen.
“I thought we had a lot of good looks and we moved the ball really well,” said Jaylen Brown, who led the passing effort with a team-high six assists to go along with 21 points and six rebounds. “But [the Hornets] made some tough baskets, came and out-played us.”
Boston made a strong push in the fourth quarter, cutting what had been a 14-point deficit down to four. But each time the Celtics got close, the Hornets stung them with a momentum-killing shot.
C's leading scorer Dennis Schroder (24 points) made two 3-pointers in a 12-second span just before the one-minute mark, but Rozier responded with two 3-point daggers of his own to put Charlotte ahead by 12, thus hammering the nail in Boston's coffin.
In spite of the disappointing finish, the Celtics aren’t lumping Wednesday night's loss with some of the more disheartening defeats they've suffered throughout the season. As Al Horford noted, “despite all [of the challenges], I feel like we were kinda there.”
Brown agreed with Horford, focusing on the bigger picture of their strong play of late. After all, they entered the night with wins in seven of their previous 10 games and their offense has been clicking recently for the most part.
“We’ve still got to keep striving, keep going, get Rob back, get Smart back, and continue to just build on it,” Brown said. “Over the last 10 games, I think we’ve for sure have made progress.”