For much of Sunday afternoon, it appeared the Celtics would march to a breezy win over the Pelicans and focus on all the ways they have regained their rhythm. Then, New Orleans began its charge back from a 24-point third-quarter deficit.
It did not stop, ultimately handing Boston a demoralizing 120-115 overtime loss, the biggest comeback in Pelicans franchise history.
Jayson Tatum had 32 points and Jaylen Brown added 25, but Tatum, Brown and Kemba Walker combined to make just 22 of 68 shots. Brandon Ingram had 33 points for New Orleans and Zion Williamson added 28, 24 after halftime.
The Celtics led, 79-55, with 6:10 left in the third quarter, but that lead was erased quickly as Williamson and Ingram surged to the basket time and again, and the Pelicans defense blitzed Tatum and Brown with multiple defenders.
A Nicolo Melli 3-pointer with 3:39 left in regulation gave New Orleans a 101-98 lead, its first since midway through the opening quarter. With the score tied at 104, Tatum converted a tough 15-foot fadeaway to put the Celtics back in front with 10.5 seconds remaining.
Williamson then converted a 3-point play, making it 108-106 with 6.9 seconds left. Following a timeout, Tatum nearly lost his balance when he received an inbounds pass near midcourt before he surged and made a tough runner to his left with 0.2 seconds left, sending the game to overtime.
Neither offense found rhythm in the extra session. Ingram was fouled with 50.1 seconds left and his team trailing, 112-111. He made his first free throw and a rare double lane violation was called on the second, resulting in a jump ball which New Orleans won. Ingram promptly drilled a 3-pointer, making it 115-112.
New Orleans led, 118-115, when it intentionally fouled Tatum with 5.2 seconds left so he could not attempt a 3-pointer. His first foul shot was off and he then missed the second intentionally, but was called for a violation for stepping over the line and the Celtics ran out of time.
“Just blowing the lead is the toughest part,” Tatum said. “Obviously we gave ourselves a chance in overtime, but if we want to be a really good team we’ve got to put teams away earlier, especially being up 20-something points.”
Observations from the game:
⋅ The Celtics entered Sunday with the NBA’s 26th-ranked fourth-quarter net rating, as they had been outscored by 6.4 points per 100 possessions. That number will only get uglier after this loss. The Celtics were outscored, 34-21, in the fourth and allowed New Orleans to shoot 52.2 percent from the field without a turnover. Boston connected on just 30.4 percent of its tries.
Including overtime, Boston was outscored, 46-28, in the 17-minute closing stretch. Coach Brad Stevens said the regression was partly due to some missed open shots, but he acknowledged that it has been a persistent issue.
“It’s enough of a trend, enough of a concern,” he said. “We’ve got to stop it. Last year at this time, we were in really good shape in those moments. This year, we’re not. It has not been good.”
⋅ Robert Williams was one of the few bright spots for the Celtics. He had 8 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 blocks in just 21 minutes. He has shown he probably deserves a larger role, but Williams missed most of last season because of a hip bone edema and said he has experienced occasional pain this year; Stevens said he will try to manage his workload in the coming weeks.
Still, he started the overtime in place of Tristan Thompson, and it quickly became clear why. He converted an alley-oop, swatted a 3-pointer, blocked a Williamson shot on a drive, and may have gotten a tough goaltending call on another block. Williams said the increased opportunities are making it easier to develop a flow.
“I feel like it will just help me read plays better, read defenses better, read the spacing better,” he said, “and obviously just become way more comfortable.”
⋅ Earlier, Stevens had mostly kept Thompson and Daniel Theis on the court together when Williamson was in the game, and the duo had success in the first half, when the Pelicans star was limited to 4 points and a rebound.
But in the second half, the Pelicans spread out their attack a bit and gave Williamson more space to lower his head and get to the hoop. He had 24 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists after halftime.
“We can put anybody on our team in front of Zion one-on-one and he’s going to get to where he wants to go,” Stevens said, “and we’re going to try to challenge it as well as we can. That’s why you have to guard him as a team. That’s why like sometimes you help and you get burned, like on the Ingram 3 where we pull in and help and he makes the big shot.”
⋅ During the start of this Celtics’ skid, Stevens pointed out the grueling schedule of games jam-packed against powerful teams such as the Lakers, Jazz, and Suns. That excuse is gone now. Their last six games, the Celtics have lost to the Pistons (8-21), Wizards (10-17), Hawks (12-17), and Pelicans (13-17). This was the soft spot of their first-half schedule, and it’s almost over.
⋅ The Celtics continue to monitor Kemba Walker’s workload as he builds strength in his left knee. After Boston’s Friday win over the Hawks, Stevens said that if Atlanta’s comeback bid sent the game to overtime, Walker would probably have sat out the extra session because he had played just over 33 minutes.
A similar scenario unfolded Sunday. Walker returned for overtime and ended up playing a season-high 35 minutes, 38 seconds.
“I asked Kemba and our medical staff if it was OK to play or not,” Stevens said. “I was going to take him out at the start of overtime. They said he’s fine to play the overtime. If we would have gone two overtimes, he would not have played.”
In this case, the Celtics would probably have been better off if Stevens ended Walker’s night after the fourth quarter. He missed all three of his overtime 3-point attempts and did not score. He was just 5 for 21 overall and 1 for 12 from beyond the arc.
▪ Lonzo Ball was called from an off-ball foul with 2:20 left and the Pelicans leading, 111-110. The Celtics were in position to get a sideline out of bounds before Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy challenged it. Stevens was furious that the challenge was awarded because he believed the Celtics had already been given the ball to be inbounded. Nevertheless, New Orleans won the challenge, resulting in a jump ball. (Boston won the tip.)