CHARLOTTE — The first half of the Celtics game against the Hornets on Monday night unfolded somewhat predictably.
Charlotte has been an elixir for Jayson Tatum over the years. And in front of a road crowd with an unmistakably green hue, Tatum was in command. He erupted for 31 first-half points, Boston led by as many as 18, and it appeared that this challenging-but-successful road trip would end with a romp.
Then some bad habits the Celtics displayed in recent escapes resurfaced. Joe Mazzulla said the team was taking plays off, one of the most damning critiques a coach can submit.
Eventually, Charlotte wiped away an 11-point deficit in the final four minutes of regulation and secured an unlikely 121-118 win when Miles Bridges drilled the go-ahead 3-pointer with 6.6 seconds left in overtime, snapping Boston’s six-game winning streak.
“We’re talented, and because of that sometimes you can win games just based off of that,” Celtics center Kristaps Porzingis said after posting 17 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 blocks. “We don’t want to become that. We want to be a team that shows up and plays the same way no matter who we’re playing against. And that’s still a work in progress, of course.”
Tatum’s performance, which at one point looked like it could become historic, ended as a footnote. He finished with 45 points, 13 rebounds, and 6 assists, but after he was fouled on a 3-pointer with 5.5 seconds left in overtime and Boston trailing by three, he made his first two free throws and missed the third.
Bridges (14 points) secured his 15th rebound of the night and was fouled with 1.7 seconds remaining. The Celtics believed more time should have been added to the clock, but their pleas went nowhere.
“But we had many opportunities to finish it out before that, and we didn’t,” Porzingis said. “So we cannot blame it on that small detail.”
The Hornets were not in the free-throw penalty yet, so Gordon Hayward was fouled on the ensuing inbounds and hit both free throws with 0.8 seconds left to stretch the lead back to 3. After a timeout, Jrue Holiday’s cross-court inbounds pass from the sideline was intercepted by Bridges.
The Celtics were without guard Derrick White (personal reasons) and forward Al Horford (rest). Jaylen Brown picked up his fifth foul midway through the third quarter and sat until midway through the fourth. The time he did spend on the floor was not very productive; he made 5 of 17 shots, missed all five of his 3-pointers and finished with 13 points.
Boston received a lift from guard Payton Pritchard, who hit all four of his first-quarter 3-pointers and helped anchor a group at the start of the fourth quarter that did not include any stars but helped stretch the lead anyway. If Pritchard (21 points on 8 of 14 shooting, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals) has snapped out of his mild early-season shooting slump, it will end up mattering a lot more than this loss.
Nevertheless, some concerning trends have emerged for the Celtics over these last three games. They escaped with victories against the Raptors and Grizzlies thanks to some timely plays in the clutch and some good fortune, but the Hornets finally left them with a dent.
“I think it’s just maybe attention to detail,” Holiday said. “Last few games, we’ve kind of let that slip.”
Although Charlotte did not shoot well, it impacted the game with speed and hustle, registering 24 fast-break points, 17 offensive rebounds and 20 second-chance points. Mazzulla said he actually thought his team’s first-shot defense was solid. But then the Hornets rushed in for those second-chances, and the Celtics lost their shape.
“This was our first overtime game, our first time where we blew a lead, and we have to go back and understand why we did it,” Mazzulla said. “And it comes from taking plays off and not finishing possessions.”
The Celtics led, 100-89, midway through the fourth but could not put away the pesky Hornets. A 3-pointer by LaMelo Ball (team-high 36 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists) with 1:33 left pulled Charlotte within 108-104. And after Tatum missed a layup, Mark Williams (18 points, 16 rebounds, 3 blocks) converted his own missed layup to make it 108-106.
Holiday was fouled with 10.7 seconds left but missed both free throws. Ball then attacked quickly for a layup with 7.2 seconds to play, tying the score at 108.
After a timeout, Tatum was double-teamed in the post and fired a pass to Sam Hauser at the top of the key. Hauser has been one of the league’s top long-range shooters this season, but he could not get untracked Monday. His 3-pointer at the buzzer fell short, and he finished 1 for 9 overall.
The teams traded baskets throughout overtime. After Tatum hit an open 3-pointer to give Boston a 116-114 lead with 57.7 seconds left, Hayward (20 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists) answered with a dunk on a backdoor cut.
The Celtics tried to respond quickly to set up a two-for-one chance, but Brown’s 3-pointer with 29 seconds left rimmed out. After Ball dribbled the shot-clock down, he found Bridges at the left arc, and his 3-pointer with 6.6 seconds left was good, making it 119-116.
Tatum was fouled by Hayward on a 3-pointer with 5.5 seconds to play and calmly hit the first two free throws before missing the third, and this six-game run came to a sudden end.
“We have a good, smart, pretty experienced group so we should not be making that many small errors throughout the game,” Porzingis said. “And we’ll clean those up and we’ll be fine.”