Shorthanded Celtics rally, top Hornets for 11th straight victory
The Celtics had whittled an 18-point deficit to 12 before the start of the fourth quarter of the their game against the Hornets, and coach Brad Stevens looked around at the players who were preparing to head back into the game at that moment.
He saw Guerschon Yabusele, the rookie from France who has played just 24 minutes all season. He saw Shane Larkin, who was discarded by three NBA teams before playing overseas last year. He saw Daniel Theis, the lanky rookie who played in front of crowds of about 5,000 in Germany a year ago.
“Hey, most of you haven’t been here before that are playing right now in a game like this,” Stevens said. “But if you get some stops and string a few buckets together, this place is going to get fun.”
Stevens, who has seen TD Garden rumble and shake like few other arenas, had little choice but to call upon this patchwork group. Al Horford missed his second consecutive game with a concussion, and, two minutes into Friday’s game, All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving took an inadvertent blow to the head and was lost for the night.
But these Celtics have shown tremendous grit during this lengthy winning streak, and Friday was no different, as second- and third-stringers helped them surge back and take a 90-87 win, their 11th victory in a row.
“I think this team has a chance to be one of those teams that just kind of fights through adversity all the way through,” Stevens said.
It was the second time in five games that Boston overcame an 18-point second-half deficit, and both were impressive for their own reasons. The first came on the road against Russell Westbrook and the Thunder, and the second came without the Irving, Horford, and, of course, Gordon Hayward. But these Celtics are plucky, maybe even more than usual when their stars are not on the court with them.
“We just believe in our team, believe in each other,” Larkin said. “When we went out there and played together, there wasn’t one guy who took it on himself to say, ‘All right, I’m going to bring us back.’ We played together, played well, and when you do that it’s hard to guard all of us.”
With 1:30 left, rookie Jayson Tatum capped a 22-5 run with a driving layup that gave Boston an 86-81 lead, its largest of the night. Kemba Walker cut the deficit to 1 with a 3-point play with 45.7 seconds left, but after a timeout, the Celtics’ Marcus Morris hit a difficult 21-footer with the shot clock winding down. Morris later said it was a broken play, but the Celtics were fine with the result.
Walker made it 88-87 with a layup. The Celtics then inbounded the ball to Terry Rozier, who stepped on the sideline, giving the Hornets the ball with 14.8 seconds remaining. Walker had a chance to give Charlotte the lead, and the 6-foot-9-inch Morris ended up guarding him when he switched on a screen. Morris forced Walker, one of the league’s most dangerous slashers, into a tough 19-footer that thudded off the back of the rim.
“Marcus Morris’s switch on Kemba at the end of the game was as good as you can do,” Stevens said. “Kemba has created more highlight reels on people who switch than maybe anyone who’s around.”
Rozier gathered the rebound, was fouled, and hit two free throws with 3.6 seconds left. The ensuing inbounds pass was knocked away, and the Celtics had their victory.
While the Celtics were certainly pleased, much of their focus afterward turned to Irving. With 10 minutes, 10 seconds left in the first quarter, center Aron Baynes attempted to block Walker’s floater. When he landed, he inadvertently struck Irving in the head with his right elbow. Irving fell to the floor and appeared dazed as he bled considerably.
Irving stayed down for a minute or two before being helped to the locker room, and he still looked wobbly then. Irving left the arena at halftime and the Celtics said he would be monitored for a concussion over the next 36 hours.
Stevens said that when he got to his office after the game there was a group text waiting from Irving that said, ‘Way to go. Great win.”
Boston was already without Horford, but Stevens said before Friday’s game that he has progressed nicely since suffering a concussion Monday. If the Celtics remain shorthanded when they face the Raptors on Sunday, though, they have shown that they cannot be counted out.
“That’s what you can say about this team as a group, everyone plays for each other,” Theis said. “Offensively and defensively, everyone’s just fighting for each other.”
In addition to the glaring absences, the Celtics won despite Rozier, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart combining to go just 9 of 42 from the field. But when this team is crashing for rebounds, swarming on defense, and flying around for loose balls, offensive deficiencies can be masked. Larkin had 16 points and so did Tatum, whose playing status was in question because if a sore ankle. Charlotte shot just 4 for 20 in the final period, when it scored 11 points.
The Celtics were disjointed early without Irving and Horford. Boston made just 1 of its first 11 shots. A basket by the rookie Malik Monk put the Hornets ahead, 26-9. In the first quarter the Celtics made just 5 of 19 shots and committed five turnovers and seven fouls. The Celtics trailed 47-34 when they began to intentionally foul Dwight Howard in the second quarter. The center missed four consecutive free throws, and Boston was trying to send him to the line for two more but Jeremy Lamb hit a big 3-pointer before they could, causing Stevens to wave his arm in frustration on the bench.
That started a 7-0 run for the Hornets, who went to halftime with a 57-41 lead. Charlotte led by as many as 18 points in the third quarter, but Boston gradually chipped away and pulled within 76-64 at the start of the fourth. There, the Celtics’ defense silenced the Hornets, holding them to one made field goal over a stretch of more than 10 minutes.
Larkin gave Boston life at both ends, applying relentless ball pressure and hitting timely jumpers. Back-to-back 3-pointers by Theis and Brown sliced a 9-point deficit to 77-74. Brown’s layup with 5:29 left gave the Celtics an 80-79 lead, and they did not trail again.
“We’ve got a strong basketball team that believes in one another,” Rozier said, “and we’ve got good coaches that put us in the right position and just try to preach stay focused on the defensive end and everything will take care of itself.”