WALTHAM — If the blame falls on Rajon Rondo for two mistakes that killed a late-game rally in the Celtics’ 96-87 loss to the Hornets on Wednesday, he’s fine with that.
Down 5 with a little more than three minutes left, Rondo weaved through traffic in the lane when Kemba Walker sneaked behind him and picked his pocket.
Al Jefferson made a layup at the other end and the Hornets stretched their lead to 92-85.
Less than two minutes later, Rondo shuffled his feet and was whistled for a travel. Jefferson cashed in on that giveaway, too, making an 18-footer for a 94-85 lead that essentially wrapped things up.
“You just let it go,” Rondo said. “I’ve been playing this game for nine years, I’m one of the best at what I do, and I’m human. You make mistakes. I own up to my mistakes. It’s just part of the game.”
Rondo committed only four turnovers in the game. Two happened to come at an inopportune time.
“Give the defense credit,” Rondo said. “I traveled on one, Kemba Walker back-tipped the other. So give them guys credit.”
Even though he is having a strong year after returning early from a broken hand (8.5 points, 10.8 assists, 7.6 rebounds), Rondo is aware that the weight of losses fall on him.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Rondo said. “I’ve been here the longest, I’m the team captain, and I’m the point guard. So just like in football, in the beginning they blamed [Tom] Brady a lot. So it’s just part of it. It’s not weighing on me at all.”
Fourth-quarter execution has been a recurring problem for the Celtics, but Rondo said it will improve with practice and by developing chemistry.
The starting lineup has been evolving, with Tyler Zeller getting the last seven starts at center. At the same time, players are shuffling in and out in the fourth quarter.
“Just getting our chemistry together,” Rondo said. “You have to practice. You can’t have chemistry or you can’t get in a rhythm with guys that it’s your first time playing with.”
“We just threw Tyler Zeller in the starting lineup. In the fourth quarter we have different lineups in the game. We have Kelly [Olynyk] starting sometimes, we’ve got [Brandon] Bass sometimes. So it’s getting a rhythm, getting a chemistry, and knowing the plays we’re going to go to in the fourth quarter.”
For the past couple of weeks, Jeff Green has been wearing weighted gloves made by a Dallas sports training company during ball-handling drills after practice. The black and gold gloves use “anti-grip” fabric to make the ball more slippery and difficult to handle.
“It makes dribbling a little harder to control the ball,” Green said. “So it’s all about control.”
The best word Celtics coach Brad Stevens could find to describe the gloves was “funky.” But Green, who has averaged just 1.8 turnovers in his career, works frequently on his handle.
“He’s better at it, he’s able to drive by people, he’s able to handle the ball,” Stevens said. “And he can just continue to get better at it. Ballhandling’s a critical thing if you’re a point guard or if you’re a ‘5’ man, whatever the case may be. If you can’t handle the ball, you’re going to get exposed eventually. So it’s critical for all these guys to work on that at a high level.”
A small forward with a guard’s handle is a rare breed. The list can essentially be narrowed down to Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, and LeBron James.
“There aren’t a ton of those guys, and they’re very much valued in this league,” Stevens said.
“You can go down the list of about 10 or 12 other guys that play the ‘3,’ sometimes the ‘4’, that can slide over and play the ‘1’ in a pinch.”
Green found himself playing some point guard at the end of last season, when injuries left the Celtics thin. With Rondo, Marcus Smart, Phil Pressey, and Evan Turner, the Celtics have more than enough options at the position.
In the meantime, the gloves have come in handy for Green.
“They’ve been working so far,” Green said. “So keep it going.”
Sullinger finds range
Life behind the 3-point line started off rocky for Jared Sullinger this season, but over the past month, he’s gotten more comfortable stretching the floor with shots from long distance.
In his first seven games, Sullinger went 2 for 18 from deep, but he’s made at least one in 12 of his past 13 games, going 24 of 52. In the process, his 3-point shooting percentage jumped to 37.1, the third-best clip on the team. It’s the fifth-best 3-point shooting percentage in the league among power forwards.
There was a point when Sullinger became hesitant, but he got a nudge from Rondo.
“It was one game, I caught the ball at the top of the key and I was, like, semi-open and I passed it up,” Sullinger said. “Rondo came up to me and was like, ‘Sully, shoot the ball.’ ”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.