BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The Celtics improvised with a point guard by committee in a 102-97 loss to the Brooklyn Nets Thursday night. The strategy was effective offensively, but the Celtics’ defensive inconsistencies were costly as a three-game winning streak ended.
Rajon Rondo (right ankle sprain) watched from the bench, replaced by Leandro Barbosa in the starting lineup. Courtney Lee and Jason Terry took the point at times, and captain Paul Pierce ended up bringing the ball up the court late in the game.
“We scored 97 points, at halftime we were shooting 54 percent and had 50 points,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “So, our offense wasn’t a problem at all. But they scored over 100, so it was our defense and it was our rebounding. We scored 97 points and missed that many free throws down the stretch and missed that many wide-open shots, that was not a problem at all. We did enough to score. We should have scored in the 100s but we didn’t, and we didn’t get stops.”
The Celtics missed Rondo’s direction in crunch time and his choreographing talents in half-court sets. The status of Rondo, injured in the third quarter of a 98-93 win over Utah Wednesday, has not been determined for Saturday’s game against Toronto.
Point guard Deron Williams took command early as the Nets held a 59-50 halftime lead.
The Celtics trailed by as many as 13 points in the third quarter, but rallied to take the lead, before fading. Kevin Garnett gave the Celtics an 85-80 advantage with 7:57 remaining in the game. But the Celtics then hit a drought, failing to connect in the half-court offense and losing their defensive edge as their transition game disappeared.
The Nets went on a 13-2 run, a Brook Lopez follow giving them a 93-87 edge with 1:45 remaining. The Celtics scored twice after timeouts, Garnett on a runner and Jeff Green on a 3-pointer from the corner in front of the Nets’ bench, to pull within 93-92.
Williams then took over, directing the Nets’ offense and converting six free throws in the final 43 seconds. Pierce and Terry each missed from the line in the final minute. Pierce had a chance to cut the deficit to 1, but his layup rolled off the rim, and he missed both free throws after being fouled.
“I was thinking about the layup too much,” Pierce said. “Really disappointed. It was on me, I missed two free throws. I take a lot of the blame down the stretch. They call on me to make a lot of plays and I didn’t make the plays.
“It’s a long season, but that’s not the main reason we lost. The little things we talk about all year long, execution, defensively we weren’t that good in the fourth quarter, giving up 28 points, having our worst quarter of the game. So, it’s a lot of little things we have to correct. We have no room for error with Rondo out.”
After Pierce’s misses, Joe Johnson made two free throws for a 97-92 Nets advantage with 29.3 seconds on the clock. Pierce’s 3-pointer cut the deficit to 2 points with 24 seconds remaining, and the Nets called a timeout.
Barbosa was called for a foul on the inbounds play, and Williams’s free throws upped the Nets’ lead to 4 with 23.4 seconds left. Pierce’s free throws cut the deficit to 2 with 19.1 on the clock. Williams got two free throws out of a timeout and Terry missed twice.
“I was disappointed with our effort in the first half,” Rivers said. “I thought they just kicked our [butts] first half. They were more physical, went over our backs, and pushed us around.
“In the second half, we did that. The fourth quarter, I’m going to tell you I thought we had great shots, we just couldn’t make any of them. I mean, we had point-blank, wide-open looks at the elbow. We missed layups, we missed free throws. Maybe that was because we had to fight out of a ditch, out of a hole, in the third quarter. I don’t know why. I liked our looks, I liked how we finished the game overall. We just didn’t win it.”
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at email@example.com