CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Just when the Celtics thought it couldn’t get any worse, just when they appeared humbled and humiliated enough to accept the low-hanging prize of a fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, they stopped themselves with a miserable final eight minutes that adds to their list of blown leads and season-low points.
And then it got worse following Saturday’s 124-117 loss to the Charlotte Hornets when point guard Kyrie Irving appeared to take a direct shot at Brad Stevens’s coaching decisions.
After soaring to a 112-94 lead with 8:21 left, the Celtics yielded a shocking 30-5 run, as they missed 17 of 19 shots and allowed Kemba Walker to score 18 points in the final 7:43.
The performance of Walker, who finished with 36 points and scored 79 points in two Spectrum Center games against the Celtics, drew the disdain of Irving, who questioned the Celtics’ defensive tactics.
“Down the stretch I tried to come in and help as much as possible,” said Irving, who re-entered the game at the 5:51 mark, after Walker had hit two 3-pointers in the previous two minutes. “We should have probably trapped him a little bit more like every other team does in the league. But we didn’t. He torches us every time we play them. It’s no surprise.”
What was stunning was the Celtics’ sudden collapse against a shorthanded team that appeared to relent once Boston went on a 14-5 run to start the fourth quarter for the 18-point lead.
The Celtics blew a chance to move into a tie for fourth with Indiana in the East.
The Charlotte comeback started innocently enough with a Walker 3-pointer and a Miles Bridges dunk. Stevens called timeout. The Hornets then began trapping, which completely befuddled the Celtics offense. Semi Ojeyele missed a contested jumper. Walker countered with another three.
Marvin Williams then hit a three and so did Dwayne Bacon. A team that averages 11.7 3-point makes per game hit six in the fourth quarter.
Jaylen Brown countered with a three for a 115-108 lead with 3:25 left. Walker then followed with another 3 and driving layup after Smart committed consecutive offensive fouls.
The meltdown was complete when Walker hit a sideline 3-pointer in front of Jayson Tatum for a 118-117 lead with 1:19 left.
Disheveled, the Celtics offense couldn’t get any easy looks. Irving tried a couple of long 3-pointers that missed. Tatum could have tied the game with a sideline 3-pointer that missed and finally, with a chance to tie, Terry Rozier dribbled into the paint and then to the 3-point line with a stepback attempt that missed, too. The Celtics were cooked, adding to the list of disheartening losses.
“We did everything that the book is written on to lose a game that you’re up 18,” Stevens said. “They put us in a tough spot when they went small. And they just outplayed us for that stretch. We had an 18-point lead and then we started shooting shots we weren’t shooting prior to and our defense got a little more attackable and all of a sudden we’re in a 10-point game. The rest is history.
“It’s disappointing. Whenever that happens, I think you can look at it and say we all could have done better.”
It’s the latest in a series of blown leads that have cost the Celtics a chance at competing for one of the top seeds in the East. They blew a 28-point lead last month to the Clippers. They led by 11 early in the second half Wednesday at Philadelphia, and on several occasions they have wasted big leads only to come back and win late.
“That’s been one of the things that’s probably more so than any of the last few years, this team has lost leads,” Stevens said. “The question is how do we get to a point where we are able to stop that? How do we get to the point where you attack with appropriate mentality, you play the right way on offense regardless of the score and on defense you play with a presence and you finish plays together. We all needed to be better.”
It was a painful and costly loss. Rookie Robert Williams, making his first NBA start, left the court writhing in pain following a scary fall after he tried dunking a Marcus Smart miss in the second period. He could miss a few weeks.
Late in the game, Tatum ran into the basket stanchion trying to defend a Charlotte fast break and he also bruised his back. The Celtics were without Al Horford (knee soreness) and Aron Baynes (sprained ankle) as well as Gordon Hayward (concussion protocol).
Still, they played well enough to build a sizeable lead and should have coasted to victory. Instead, they went through another mental lapse and allowed the Hornets to chip away until Walker took over.
In the fourth quarters of the Hornets’ two wins against the Celtics this season, Walker is 13-for-21 shooting and 8 for 12 from the 3-point line for 39 points in about 20 minutes of play.
Irving, on the other hand, is 4-for-13 shooting and 0-for-8 from the 3-point line in those two fourth quarters for 10 points.
“Kemba got hot and we had our looks,” forward Marcus Morris said. “They was already rolling and the crowd got into it and they took advantage of it. Those have to be the games we close out. There’s nothing I can really put my finger on. We can’t dwell, we got another one [Sunday, against the Spurs]. We lost three in a row now, we need to come back reevaluate the situation and come back right.”