CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Celtics spent Wednesday night playing to the level of their opponent, keeping the Charlotte Hornets close with lazy touch fouls, putrid offensive execution, and poor shot selection.
And when the Hornets finally gained the confidence they haven’t consistently possessed all season, the Celtics were unable to save themselves from another disheartening defeat. Two days after the Celtics fought one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams to a split in consecutive games, they fell to one of the worst, committing 27 fouls in an ugly 96-87 loss at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Boston converted more field goals but the Celtics continuously sent Charlotte to the free throw line with slap fouls, bumps because they were out of position defensively, and over-the-back calls. Charlotte attempted 29 free throws to Boston’s 10, and when the Celtics had a chance to steal a victory, they simply froze.
Marcus Thornton’s jumper sliced the deficit to 87-85 with 4:32 left and the Celtics did not score again until the 15.3 second mark. In one sequence, they kept passing around the perimeter until Rajon Rondo was left with the ball 20 feet from the basket and the shot clock expiring. He traveled.
The Celtics committed six turnovers in the fourth quarter and went scoreless for 4:17 after Thornton’s hoop. Meanwhile, they allowed Al Jefferson to beat them down the stretch.
Jefferson scored 11 of his team’s 23 points in the final period on 5-for-6 shooting. The rest of the Hornets were 4 of 18. It was inexplicable because opposing teams generally double Jefferson in the post in the final period, allowing any other Hornet to beat them.
The Celtics offered Tyler Zeller no help, leaving him on an island with perhaps the best post scorer in the NBA.
“If you don’t let him get going, you have a chance,” Zeller said. “But once he gets going, he’ll start giving you four or five or six moves. Sooner or later he’s going to get you. I gave him a couple of angles and he took advantage of it.”
Meanwhile, the eight possessions following Thornton’s jumper resulted in four turnovers and four missed shots. It was a grinding night for the Celtics offense. The duo of Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger was 4-for-19 shooting. Evan Turner didn’t score in 21 minutes. Marcus Smart played 12 scoreless minutes after scoring 23 points two nights earlier against Washington.
The Celtics are a team of multiple personalities and the one that displayed itself Wednesday night was unsavory.
“It’s really interesting,” coach Brad Stevens said. “I didn’t think we played as well as we can as far as every little play, every little detail, and energy in the third quarter. But I thought we guarded great in the first half, like really well.
“How many airballs did we shoot? We didn’t hit the rim about four or six times. You’ve got to end up on nights like that unbelievable defensively just to have a chance to win and we’re not quite that good. It was one of those nights. We haven’t had very many like this.”
It was another case of the Celtics taking two steps forward — two strong games against the Wizards — and one step back — a loss to a team that had just snapped a 10-game losing streak. The Hornets shot just 41.7 percent, missed 11 of 14 3-pointers, and got 11-for-28 shooting from Lance Stephenson and Kemba Walker.
But they converted 23 of 29 free throws, as the Celtics committed a slew of silly fouls, such as Bradley bumping Walker 65 feet from the basket with the Hornets in the bonus and 5:48 left in the third quarter. That third period was the difference; the Hornets shot 55 percent, made 10 free throws, and got 9 points from the previously struggling Stephenson to take control.
Rondo notched his third triple double of the season with 12 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists but it was his mix-up with Stephenson in the second half that could garner him a flagrant foul. Rondo and Stephenson each were called for technical fouls after Rondo appeared to elbow Stephenson and the two began exchanging barbs.
Stephenson fell to the floor after Rondo’s forearm and Rondo looked down with an incredulous expression.
“Nothing at all,” Rondo said when asked about the exchange. “I said something to him. I didn’t know what I said could get a tech. He weighs about 60 more pounds than me but that’s part of his game. The game is contact. I am strong, but I don’t think I was that strong on that play in particular to knock him down.”
Rondo was more concerned about the Celtics’ lack of defensive aggression. When they foul, they don’t foul hard, allowing teams to score with a free throw as a reward. The Celtics are considered a finesse team with Sullinger, who appeared a step slow, their biggest enforcer. But he made little impact in his 29 minutes.
“We have to protect the paint,” he said. “Coach Walt [McCarty] said it. We probably gave up the most and-ones we’ve given up all year. It starts with the guards keeping the ball out of the paint, getting beat off the dribble. Our pick-and-roll coverage wasn’t as great, and when they do go to the cup, we gotta put them on their butt. Nothing flagrant, but they can’t finish the play with the ball going in the hoop.”