In recent days, the Celtics spoke excitedly about being just one short burst from vaulting into the thick of the congested Eastern Conference playoff race. Despite all of their injuries, COVID-19 absences, rough finishes, and all-around ugly nights, they had climbed above .500, and there was a clear path to something more.
To truly ascend, though, they will need to find ways to topple the other teams in their conference that are within reach, especially when at home. And one of those opportunities slipped away Wednesday night, when the 3-point shooting of the Celtics’ two All-Stars vanished, and the young, athletic Charlotte Hornets dunked and danced to a 111-102 win.
“I feel like they made some shots that kind of deflated us a little bit,” Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said.
At the other end of the floor, it seemed that every Celtics jump shot that could have had a similar effect in a big spot ended with a big thud. Most of them were fired from the fingertips of Brown and Jayson Tatum, who combined to go 2 for 18 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Brown has generally been consistent, but Tatum’s shooting has been a season-long issue, and it’s deteriorated further in recent days. He missed all seven of his 3-pointers Wednesday and is 3 for 23 over his last four games.
After this loss, the Celtics continued to insist that their concern level for the typically sharpshooting forward remains low, but there’s an unspoken understanding that it will be impossible for this team to ascend until Tatum regains his form.
Foul trouble might have affected Tatum’s rhythm against the Hornets, but some of the wide-open looks he has effortlessly drained throughout his career continued to end with thuds.
“He was 0 for 7 from three and probably five, six of them were wide open,” coach Ime Udoka said. “So, he’s not going to pass those up regardless of if the ball is going in or not. My message to him and the others is, ‘How can you impact the game in another way if your shots aren’t falling?’ And so I felt that’s the area we could have improved on tonight.”
Dennis Schröder had 24 points and seven assists to lead the Celtics, who were once again shorthanded. Marcus Smart was cleared from COVID-19 protocol but sat out for conditioning reasons, center Robert Williams missed his second game in a row following the birth of his child, and Aaron Nesmith was sidelined because of a sprained ankle.
Those absences were exacerbated by Tatum and Grant Williams getting into foul trouble, and Udoka said that appeared to affect their aggressiveness at both ends of the court. As the Celtics began to claw back from a 12-point deficit early in the fourth quarter, they reached the free throw penalty with 8 minutes, 40 seconds left, a golden opportunity to get low-stress and simple points on a night when long-range jumpers had become a chore.
But the Celtics did not attempt another free throw after that point.
“I think the foul trouble in general with Jayson and some guys might have affected them offensively,” Udoka said. “They got a little hesitant there and not as aggressive moving downhill. That hurt us and we knew we were in the bonus and talked about attacking and getting to the basket a little bit more. I think we drove it in and got a little sloppy, some turnovers in transition and playing in a crowd.”
It was Gordon Hayward’s first game in Boston since leaving the Celtics and signing with the Hornets in the summer of 2020. Hayward, who was injured when Charlotte played at TD Garden last season, received a warm ovation when he was introduced in the starting lineup and then battled foul trouble and had little impact, finishing with 9 points and three rebounds.
But another former Celtic was dominant. Terry Rozier, who joined the Hornets after the Celtics decided to move forward with Kemba Walker as their point guard in the summer of 2019, erupted for 28 points and 10 assists, including several 3-point daggers in the second half as the Celtics tried to craft a comeback.
“Today a lot of shots fell and this is a building I’ve played a lot of games in, so it felt good,” Rozier said.
Said Brown: “He was having way too much fun out there.”
The Hornets made 16 of 39 3-pointers overall.
After the Celtics pulled within 88-84 on a Romeo Langford free throw, Tatum, Brown, and Josh Richardson combined to miss four 3-pointers in a row during a three-minute stretch, allowing the Hornets to extend their lead to 98-88.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Schröder pulled Boston within 108-102 with 1:14 left, but Rozier put away his former team by drilling a deep, contested 3-pointer with 54.8 seconds to play.
“We really were trying to take some of the stuff away from him, and he just kept hitting shot after shot again,” Al Horford said. “So, credit to him.”