Entering Tuesday’s game against the Pelicans, the Celtics had been 5-0 when playing on two or more days of rest this season. In this case, they had played just once over the past nine days, as their game in London last Thursday was bookended by plenty of time for travel, sleep, and time-zone adjusting.
But after his team’s 116-113 overtime loss to New Orleans that snapped a seven-game winning streak, Celtics coach Brad Stevens lamented his team’s defense particularly in transition. He looked at the stat sheet and saw that just eight Pelicans had played in the 53-minute game and he said there was no excuse for Boston’s defensive stumbles.
“I’ll go back and watch,” Stevens said, “but I’m guessing we didn’t defend the way we wanted to for more than 10-12 minutes all night.”
The Pelicans have the league’s most intimidating and powerful interior tandem in DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. And while the two big men looked to dominate inside, the Celtics tried to attack from afar.
Boston tied a franchise record by draining 19 3-pointers on 50 attempts, but in the end, that was not enough to neutralize Davis. The All-Star poured in 45 points and added 16 rebounds.
Although he has nights when he punishes opponents at the rim, he did plenty of damage from the perimeter in this game, with 8 of his 16 field goals coming from outside the paint. The Celtics could not get close enough to disturb the big man’s high release.
“He’s tough,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. “I think we could have done a better job of containing him, but he’s tough. He’s one of the best players in the league.”
At the Pelicans’ pregame shootaround Tuesday morning, Davis quickly brushed off several questions about the Celtics’ possible interest in trading for him. There is really no reason for New Orleans to consider dealing the 24-year-old superstar. But in this game, he reminded everyone why any NBA team would be infatuated with the idea of acquiring him.
“You’ve got to make his catches harder,” Stevens said of stopping Davis. “You’ve got to be more alert as a team. You’ve got to be just better.”
Kyrie Irving brushed off perhaps his worst half of the season and scored 24 of his 27 points after the second quarter. But he was mostly left out of some key possessions in the final two minutes of overtime, as the Pelicans closed the game with a 6-0 run.
The teams took turns trading baskets in the extra session before the Celtics took a 113-110 lead on a Marcus Smart jumper with 2:10 left.
But then the Pelicans, who had let a 10-point fourth-quarter lead slip away, put together the game-ending run they needed. Cousins (19 points, 15 rebounds) made a jump hook and then Jrue Holiday scored to give the Pelicans a 114-113 lead.
At the other end Brown drove to the basket and lost control of the ball, and with 53.3 seconds left Holiday scored inside off the glass, making it 116-113.
“He’s been making clutch baskets all year,” Stevens said.
The Celtics had success firing from long range throughout the night, but they missed their last three 3-pointers, including Marcus Morris’s attempt from the top of the key that bounced around the rim and out, and Irving’s deep try with five seconds left that never really had a chance.
“I knew that in order for our team to be in a great position, I had to still be aggressive, so taking a few tougher shots just based on the way defenses are playing me,” Irving said. “I’ve just got to be a lot more definitive in my decisions, because teams are trying to double me and get the ball out of my hands.”
The Celtics have surged back from big deficits so often this year, most recently coming back from a 22-point hole against Philadelphia. On Tuesday, it looked like they’d overcome yet another one.
They clawed back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit mostly by drilling 3-pointers, and Boston held a 5-point lead and the ball with less than two minutes left in regulation and appeared in control.
But Irving was stripped and Ian Clark swooped in for a layup before Holiday tied the score at 101 on a 3-pointer with 1:26 left.
Irving missed a long 3, but then made up for it when he knocked away a lazy pass and was fouled. Irving hit one of two free throws to put Boston ahead by a point, but then Davis put New Orleans back in front with a pair of foul shots with 54.3 seconds left.
After Irving missed a soaring layup attempt, Davis was fouled again, but this time hit just one of two with 20.2 seconds remaining, giving the Pelicans a 104-102 lead.
After a timeout, Irving tied the score when he attacked for a layup with 11.8 seconds left, and the Pelicans were unable to get off a good shot before time expired, forcing overtime. But the Celtics, who have crafted so many magnificent comebacks this season, could not complete this one.