NEW ORLEANS — The Celtics lost Wednesday night because of their arrogance. They comfortably led throughout the game against the undermanned Hornets, toying with the group of young upstarts.
As the second half began and the Celtics held a double-digit lead, suddenly they couldn’t regain their first-half prowess. The basket became the size of a Cheerio, the Hornets suddenly used their defense to gain confidence on offense, and the Celtics were almost smothered by the barrage.
Trailing by 9 with six minutes left, the Celtics arose, dusted themselves off, weathered the shock of a 22-point New Orleans run and stormed back for a seemingly comfortable 5-point lead in the final two minutes.
Yet, for the umpteenth time this season, the Celtics were just one play away from winning, a play that never occurred. They needed a key rebound, defensive stop, or a final bucket. Instead, they broke down on defense, fouled a 3-point shooter, and finally allowed a center an open path to the basket for a putback.
Anthony Davis’s tip-in of Eric Gordon’s miss with 0.3 seconds left completed a stirring New Orleans rally, and the Hornets stunned the Celtics, 87-86, at New Orleans Arena, Boston’s fourth loss in six games.
“When you have a team down 10 at the half, you have to come out with better focus,” said forward Paul Pierce, who led the Celtics with 28 points but missed the potential game-sealing jumper with 15.6 seconds left. “When you get a team like this that’s lost a lot of games, they don’t really have a lot of confidence when you go up like 16 or 18. We didn’t do that. We didn’t take advantage of the opportunity. When you mess with the game like that and give a team some confidence, they get a lead and anything can happen, and that’s what you saw.”
Just as the Celtics wasted a 13-point lead with eight minutes left Monday against Miami, they botched a chance to open a three-game road trip with a solid win. The Hornets had lost four straight games and played the first half in cement, yet the Celtics treated prosperity like Kryptonite and lost a 13-point second-half lead.
A 17-3 run midway through the fourth quarter served as a salve but the Celtics were putrid in the final 1:56 after Brandon Bass’s tip-in gave them an 86-81 lead.
They allowed Gordon to navigate to the basket for an easy 6-foot runner at the 1:32 mark. The Celtics then had two chances to build on the lead but Avery Bradley missed a 3-pointer in the corner and when Bass gathered the rebound, Pierce missed a forced jumper.
The Hornets whipped the ball to Ryan Anderson, who missed a 3-pointer from the corner but was fouled by Pierce. Anderson gave Boston a break by missing one of the free throws, but with a 1-point lead, Pierce missed again, giving New Orleans the ball with 15.6 seconds left.
Gordon was defended well by Avery Bradley but found a lane and lunged for a floater. Garnett took steps toward Gordon for the block but was too late, and Davis, the much-heralded rookie, leaped over Garnett for the tip-in.
“It’s tough man, it was my block out,” Garnett said. “I went to try to help Avery. In that sense, when you’re trying to help a teammate, you’re reacting. I’m acting off impulse as a big man to try to block shots and protect the basket and [Davis] took advantage of that.”
Said Davis: “I don’t even think he was [screening me]. He went to go block a shot, so it left me a free lane to the basket.”
The second-half breakdown was surprising and the frustration late in the third quarter was apparent. After scoring 55 points in the first half, the Celtics responded with 12 on 5-for-18 shooting in the third quarter and they were outrebounded, 17-4, in that span.
The defense became shoddy as New Orleans coach Monty Williams dared anyone to stop Anderson, who caused matchup problems at 6 feet 10 inches. He scored 14 of his 21 points after the break and attempted nine free throws, five more than the Celtics team.
Giving away games is painful, especially to lesser opponents and especially with 15 games left in the season and the Celtics trying to avoid the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference and a potential first-round matchup with the Indiana Pacers.
Still, Rivers didn’t seem too concerned about his team’s propensity for blowing late leads, though the players did.
“It doesn’t matter at this point in the season, it really doesn’t,” he said. “You could just see it. Once you [lose the lead], you can’t just turn it back on. I thought we activated the [basketball gods], you could see the difference in the speed of the way they were playing and the way we were playing in the fourth quarter. I thought we absolutely deserved to lose the game, whether we won it or not.”
Garnett, who appeared fatigued in the second half after missing the past two games, said there should be reason for worry with the postseason looming.
“It’s a major concern,” he said. “I am not going to sit up here and sugarcoat anything. We’ve got to get better at that. I’m sure obviously Doc knows. I’m sure we’ll work on it and do our best to get better at it. But with this being this late in the season, we should be better at it. We are a team that at times looks good but we all have our flaws.”Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe