NEW ORLEANS — What is becoming evident for the Celtics, who have aspirations of becoming an elite team, is they are susceptible to the same errors nearly every game.
They struggle with defensive rebounding. They are not a good 3-point shooting team, and Isaiah Thomas is the lone Celtic who can consistently reach the free throw line.
Despite myriad mistakes and poor defense in stretches, the Celtics still had a chance to beat the Pelicans, who entered with the league’s worst record, with a couple of executed plays in the waning minutes, such as when Thomas drained a 3-pointer with 1:57 left for a 2-point lead and then stole the ball from Langston Galloway for a chance to extend the advantage.
Thomas missed a floater, then Kelly Olynyk fouled Anthony Davis on the rebound. Poor instincts and bad fouls summed up the final minutes for the Celtics, especially Olynyk. With the score tied with 2.5 seconds left, Olynyk fell for a Tim Frazier pump fake and left himself vulnerable for contact and a foul.
Frazier’s free throw gave the Pelicans a 106-105 win at Smoothie King Center, dropping the Celtics to .500 and reigniting doubt as to whether they are capable of being an elite team.
“Very frustrating,” Thomas said. “We made a lot of mistakes early in the game and it came back to haunt us, and on top of making mistakes toward the end of the game that you’re not going to win games doing. We didn’t defend at a high level, not until the end of the third quarter, where we turned it up. We’re not that good of a team to wait that long.”
The Celtics just aren’t getting easy points. Just 16 percent of their points Monday were scored at the line, compared to 28 for New Orleans. The Pelicans scored their last 6 points and 11 of their 22 points in the fourth quarter on free throws. Boston played stellar defense in the final period, holding Davis without a field goal, but he sank all six of his free throw attempts.
Olynyk struggled. His foul on Frazier gave the Pelicans their winning point, but the loose-ball foul on Davis and a poor pass that led to the Pelicans retaking the lead with 2:12 left capped a rough night.
The foul on Frazier was especially frustrating because it occurred 22 feet from the basket and Frazier had not made a jumper all night. Both of his field goals were layups.
“He came downhill and shot-faked and I tried to challenge a shot I thought he was going to shoot and he jumped into me,” Olynyk said. “They called a foul. It’s really tough. It’s one we really wanted to win. A couple of tough breaks. A couple of fouls that didn’t go my way. Didn’t make some shots. Got some open looks that went in and out. Just a tough night.”
Once again it was Thomas serving as the closer with the Celtics trailing, 93-83, with 9:31 left. He began attacking the basket, scoring on banks and floaters. Finally, Avery Bradley’s layup gave the Celtics a 99-98 lead with 2:54 left, their first since the first half.
Thomas’s 3-pointer put the Celtics ahead 102-100 with 1:57 left but they wasted two chances to make it a two-possession game and Davis tied the score with two free throws. Thomas then drew a foul but the 86 percent free throw shooter missed the first, allowing the Pelicans the chance to go ahead.
Davis was then fouled on a putback attempt and put New Orleans ahead again with two free throws. He finished with 25 points on 7-for-22 shooting and had 16 rebounds. But the Celtics were hurt again by secondary players as the combination of Terrence Jones and Galloway combined for 36 points on 15-for-26 shooting.
It was a frustrating night offensively for the Celtics, who just couldn’t consistently hit makeable shots. It wasn’t necessarily the Pelicans’ defense. The Celtics missed shots at the rim. They missed floaters. They missed mid-range jumpers.
The Celtics missed 57 shots in all, including 29 3-pointers.
Once again, the Celtics issue was defense and it again was allowing a secondary player to score early and often. This time it was the former Knick Galloway, who entered the game averaging 7.3 points and shooting 34.6 percent.
He managed 14 points in 14 first-half minutes on 6-of-7 shooting and a pair of 3-pointers as the Pelicans led, 56-51, at halftime. Davis added 13 points on for 4-of-10 shooting as the Pelicans, a 43.4 percent shooting club, made 53.8 percent in the first half.
The Celtics, meanwhile, again struggled with perimeter shooting and they appeared determined to fire 3-pointers until one of them converted. Of their 49 first-half shots, 23 were from beyond the arc and just seven were made. Boston players not including Bradley were 4 for 19 from the 3-point line, wasting several chances to draw closer.
Bradley led the Celtics with 15 points at the break and Thomas, nursing a sprained left middle finger, added 12 on 5-of-12 shooting. The remaining three starters — Marcus Smart, Amir Johnson and Olynyk — managed just 11 points combined on 4-of-15 shooting.
For the seventh consecutive game, the Celtics were playing without center Al Horford, who was in New Orleans for the team’s shootaround. He returned home and it was determined he has not recovered from a concussion.