When the Celtics gathered at halftime after getting pushed around by the Charlotte Hornets for two quarters Sunday, coach Brad Stevens offered a criticism of the defense that was also an indictment of the offense. He told his players that they were guarding Charlotte as if they were expecting to stop an offense such as their own, an offense that has a tendency to hold the ball too long and dribble too much.
But Charlotte’s offense did not resemble that. The Celtics were reeling as the Hornets pushed upcourt at every opportunity and whipped the ball around as if it had just come out of an oven. The result was a dominant and unrelenting 125-104 win in which Charlotte led for the final 47 minutes.
“The toughest team sets the rules of the game, and they set it right from the opening tip,” Stevens said. “And we were on our heels the whole night.”
Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker had 20 points apiece for the Celtics, but there are few individual performances worth mentioning. Boston was undone by its defense that appeared to have only mild interest in being a deterrent.
“We weren’t as prepared to play as they were,” Brown said. “They came out of the gate with more energy than us.”
Four players reached the 20-point mark for the Hornets, who shot 50.5 percent from the field and had assists on 39 of 47 baskets. Charlotte was playing without three of its top five scorers: Gordon Hayward, LaMelo Ball and Malik Monk.
“They just flat out beat us,” Walker said. “It’s very unacceptable. We’ve got to be better.”
The Celtics entered Sunday with just 12 games left and a favorable schedule to make a push toward the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. They do not have any more games against teams in the top three in either conference, and their remaining slate is the third easiest in the league.
But those wins will not be handed to the Celtics (32-29), and Boston received a reminder of that Sunday as it slipped into a tie for sixth-place with the Heat, two games behind the fourth-place Knicks.
“We don’t know where things might end up,” Brown said. “We’re just trying to improve in areas that we need to improve and get ready to continue to make a push for the playoffs. We just got to be the best version of ourselves.”
Observations from the game:
▪ The Celtics’ day can be best summed up by an inbounds play just over two minutes into the opening quarter. Jayson Tatum received a pass from Walker, and then nonchalantly sent it back to him with an underhand flip. Hornets guard Terry Rozier saw this transpiring, surged in, ripped the ball away and converted a layup. Stevens instantly called timeout.
There were other lapses, too. After a second-quarter basket by Brown, which should give Boston plenty of time to set its defense, the Hornets moved upcourt and Miles Bridges caught a pass on the left arc. He noticed that there was no one in front of him, so he coasted in for an uncontested dunk. There appeared to be some miscommunication between Brown and Evan Fournier on the play.
“In the past, we may have been able to get away with a subpar performance in different games,” Stevens said. “This team hasn’t won a game all year that I can remember where we played subpar. So that just is a good indicator that we need to be on it. We need to be better.”
▪ Fournier was playing in just his sixth game as a Celtic and his second since returning from his absence due to COVID-19. He said after Friday’s loss to the Nets that he probably should have waited a few more games before coming back, but that he needed to work to build some chemistry with his new teammates before the playoffs arrived. He once again looked a step slow Sunday, though, going scoreless in 20 minutes.
▪ The Celtics received a scare in the second quarter when Walker landed after contesting a 3-pointer before instantly clenching his left side and signaling that he needed to be taken out. He went directly to the locker room. But he returned about 10 minutes later and seemed fine.
“I can’t even really explain it, to be honest,” Walker said. “I don’t know. I just felt some weird pain on my side. I can’t really explain it. It was just pretty painful at the time.”
▪ The Celtics fell behind, 82-63, when Rozier hit a 3-pointer with 6:40 left in the third quarter. Marcus Smart responded with an open 3-pointer from the right corner and then added one from the top of the key after a turnover. Then he attacked on consecutive possessions and was fouled. He hit all four free throws, giving him 10 points in just 1 minute, 4 seconds.
But Smart was on the wrong end of a tough end to the quarter for Boston. The Celtics pulled within 9 points and had a chance to get even closer on an inbounds with 6.7 seconds left. The pass went to Smart, who hurried upcourt and tried to draw a foul on a 3-pointer. There was no call, and Bridges chased down the loose ball and drilled a deep 3-pointer before the buzzer.
Stevens said he was unsure whether a foul should have been called on Smart’s play.
“All I know is that he still had to hit the 35-footer to go up 12,” he said. “We got the ball up the court, we got it into a guy that can make plays for himself or others with plenty of time, and it was just an unfortunate turn of events.”