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PELICANS 115, CELTICS 109

It was a puzzling Celtics performance, and other observations after the Pelicans held off a late rally

Marcus Smart couldn't draw an offensive foul on Brandon Ingram in the second quarter on Monday night at TD Garden, and the Celtics couldn't reward their first home crowd in more than a year with a victory.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

More than a year has passed since fans last saw the Celtics play at TD Garden. On Monday night, a crowd of 2,298 saw Boston face the Pelicans. At the start, the group sounded considerably larger as it sought to make up for lost time and lost cheers.

But for much of the night, the roars were mostly replaced by groans. The fans realized this team is just as puzzling in person as it has been on television for the past few months. The Celtics gave their supporters one late jolt with a frenetic comeback from a 16-point deficit, but it fell short, and New Orleans held on for a 115-109 win.

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Jayson Tatum had 34 points to lead the Celtics. Evan Fournier, in his first game since being acquired from the Magic last Thursday, was 0 for 10 and scoreless. Jaylen Brown sat out due to a hip contusion suffered Saturday against Oklahoma City. Zion Williamson had 28 points for New Orleans, which made 16 of 31 3-pointers.

An Eric Bledsoe 3-pointer with 4:08 left gave the Pelicans a seemingly commanding 110-94 lead, but the Celtics stormed back with a 13-0 run capped by a Tatum 3-pointer that made it 110-107 with 50.5 seconds left.

Brandon Ingram answered with a 22-footer with 33.1 seconds left that stretched the lead to five. Tatum missed a shot inside, and after a Grant Williams foul, Marcus Smart picked up a technical and was ejected. Boston’s hopes were dashed.

The Celtics are once again below .500, at 23-24, with just 25 games left in the regular season.

Observations from the game:

⋅ This game was an adventure for Smart. Maybe he was pumped up to finally play in front of a home crowd again, or maybe it was the challenge of slowing Williamson, but he seemed to be flailing and falling at every hint of contact, even more than usual. He missed all six of his 3-pointers, but his energy was a key factor in Boston’s comeback. Then, those good moments were washed away when he picked up a technical foul and was ejected with 24 seconds left.

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“We’ve all been through it, but I think just as a group, we’ve got to be there for each other,” Tatum said. “I think that’s just part of playing a team sport, just being there for one another.”

⋅ One play Smart would love to forget: With 4:29 left in the third quarter, the Celtics forced a jump-ball with just 0.3 seconds remaining on the shot clock for New Orleans. Ingram and Payton Pritchard matched up for the jump at mid-court, and Ingram did not even move, allowing Pritchard to knock the ball to Smart. But instead of just dribbling up the court, Smart launched a half-court shot — as if Boston’s shot clock was going to expire. Ingram then drained a 3-pointer at the other end that put the Pelicans ahead, 83-76.

⋅ Fournier received a nice ovation when he checked in midway through the opening quarter, but the sharpshooting wing could not find a rhythm. He fired up a catch-and-shoot 3 from the top of the key on his first touch, and it was off. And things did not get better during his 32 minutes, 33 seconds of action.

Fournier missed his next nine shots, including a pair of air-balls, the second an awkward 20-footer with under 3 minutes left as the Celtics were trying to mount their comeback.

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Evan Fournier (left) defends against the Pelicans' Zion Williamson.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“At the end of the day, come on now, we all know how good Evan is,” Kemba Walker said. “He’s gonna be great for us. I thought he had great looks, shots that we all know that he can make. He’s just getting adapted.”

Fournier tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday and missed Boston’s game against the Thunder that night. But his subsequent tests came back negative, so his initial test result was most likely inaccurate. Still, he was unable to work out with the team while he awaited confirmation.

“I think it’s been a tougher than normal trade for him, but I know he’s not going to make that excuse,” Stevens said. “But I have no doubt Evan Fournier is going to score a lot of buckets for the Celtics. So, very much a blip. Not worried about it.

⋅ At the start, Tatum seemed especially energized by the presence of fans. He started with a catch-and-shoot 3, found Robert Williams for a dunk, hit a tough turnaround jumper, and nearly converted a 4-point play. Stevens said recently that Boston wants to see Tatum take more shots with less hesitation and dribbling, and he seems to be focused on doing that. He had 16 points in the first quarter, but added just two in the second.

⋅ A reminder that even though there were a couple thousand fans at this game, these are certainly not normal times: Twice during the opening quarter, public address announcer Eddie Palladino asked fans sitting in courtside seats not to touch the ball if it heads in their direction out of bounds. Any ball touched by fans was taken out of play to be disinfected.

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For some reason, some fake crowd noise is still being pumped in, but the real fans were loud and engaged.

Kemba Walker (left) pleads his case in the second half of Monday's game.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“I’d say it was pretty emotional for me to see it, because it just signals maybe if we can buckle down and get through this, then we can have something resembling normal back,” Stevens said. “Obviously, there’s not a lot of people in there and they all sounded like a lot more people than when we’ve been on the road.”

⋅ When the Celtics acquired Luke Kornet as part of the salary-shedding deal that sent Daniel Theis to the Bulls, his time in Boston figured to be short. The Celtics have been exploring the buyout market in recent days, and Kornet, who is on an expiring contract and played just 94 minutes for Chicago this year, was tabbed the most likely player to be waived if the Celtics found a target.

But Boston swung and missed on former Cavs big man Andre Drummond, who signed with the Lakers, and Kornet has been a bit of a revelation during his first two games with the Celtics. After sparking Saturday’s comeback win over the Thunder, he had 10 points and 2 rebounds in the first half against the Pelicans, giving a major boost to an otherwise quiet bench unit.

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⋅ Along with being without Brown, Semi Ojeleye remains out with a side muscle strain, and wing Romeo Langford and center Tristan Thompson are both still sidelined due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

Langford has yet to play this season. He missed the first half of the year as he recovered from offseason wrist surgery. Cleared to make his return March 11, Boston’s first game after the All-Star break, he was ruled out after testing positive for COVID-19.

Brad Stevens shouts directions during the first quarter of Monday's loss to New Orleans.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Stevens said Langford has been cleared by the team’s cardiac specialists, and he took part in a light workout prior to Monday’s game.

“Today was the first time he’s done anything in however many weeks, and he felt it,” Stevens said. “So I don’t know when he’ll be cleared to play, per se, but he’ll certainly come soon and he’ll be active soon, but he’s not going to be able to play long stints for a while. You may be able to throw him in there in one of these upcoming games at home for a couple minutes at a time, but that’s about it.”

Stevens said that Thompson’s return date remains unclear.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.