Just 19 days ago, the Celtics were brimming with confidence following an impressive win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. A home-heavy schedule to end December brought opportunities to approach and exceed .500 and cement themselves as playoff contenders in what has been tabbed a transition season.
Six losses later, four by 7 points or fewer, and the Celtics’ season could be at a breaking point. They entered perhaps their most critical game of the season Friday night at TD Garden exhausted after having arrived from Chicago in the early afternoon, delayed in their return by the weather.
The Celtics’ passion and effort were there but once again in the waning minutes the execution wasn’t. They hung close to the New Orleans Pelicans despite missing a whopping 22 field goal attempts in the final period. Yet they had two possessions to win or tie, and predictably their attempts fell short.
Avery Bradley tried taking on behemoths Anthony Davis and Greg Stiemsma and missed a driving layup that would have put the Celtics ahead with 11 seconds left, and Jared Sullinger’s 3-point attempt had no chance in the final seconds of a painful 95-92 loss.
The Celtics shot 4 of 26 in the fourth quarter and couldn’t convert when it mattered most. They missed nine 3-pointers in the period. Sullinger, playing with a badly bruised left hand, shot 0 of 7. But Boston stayed close because it crashed the boards and got to the free throw line.
The Pelicans, playing without Ryan Anderson for the final 11:05 after he sustained a cervical stinger following an ugly collision with the Celtics’ Gerald Wallace, relied on Davis and Tyreke Evans for key buckets down the stretch.
The Celtics didn’t record a field goal for the final 3:30, and after getting a key defensive stop with 20.3 left and trailing, 93-92, Bradley took on two of the Pelicans’ best shot-blocking big men on a rushed shot.
“They just made a great defensive play and I was unable to make the shot,” said Bradley, who finished with a team-high 22 points. “We just couldn’t get shots to fall. It happens. Two games in a row for us.”
Coach Brad Stevens said he had no issue with Bradley taking the shot.
“I did [like the shot],” he said. “And we went quick and we went aggressive and we had a chance to get the rebound if it bounces right. We got to the middle of the court; that’s pretty good. Now, I think him either shooting a pull-up or maybe floating it up there may have a little bit more of a chance against that length, but I don’t fault him at all for that move. That was a good, solid play.”
Boston is shooting 39.9 percent from the field in its last five games, but Stevens continues to laud the opposing team and express encouragement.
“It’s frustrating, [two] 1-point losses [and a 3-point loss] in the last three weeks,” he said. “So that’s a hard thing to swallow, but at the same time it’s not like they’re laying down. They’re coming out and competing and tonight they had every excuse in the book if they wanted to use it, and they didn’t. They played again. I’m disappointed we couldn’t get the win, but I’m proud of the way they played.”
The Celtics had opportunities to pull away but the Pelicans responded with key buckets. Jeff Green put the Celtics ahead, 86-83, with a 3-pointer with 4:56 left and then Kris Humphries grabbed a defensive rebound, but he had the ball stolen by Jrue Holiday, whose missed jumper was slammed home by Davis.
Eric Gordon sliced the Pelicans’ deficit to 1 again when he banked in a 20-footer, and then Evans scored on two layups that sandwiched a difficult lefthanded hook by Davis, who finished with a game-high 23 points and scored at will at the rim.
The Celtics, of course, lack size, using Sullinger as their center. He played the second half without a wrap on his left hand but still couldn’t finish around the basket. The injury could be affecting his shooting, as he is 16 of 58 from the field (27.6 percent) in his last five games.
“It’s tough being in my position, you use your hands a lot to box out, little stuff like that is bothering me,” he said. “So I just decided to play without [the wrap]. I was getting pretty good looks, I just missed them.
“Honestly, we’ve just got to close out games. We just need one more stop and that’s the only thing holding us back from being a team above .500 and being the team that we are now. We’re always missing that one more stop.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.