Back-to-backs in the NBA are never an easy task, but on the road in Charlotte, the Boston Celtics didn’t do much to help themselves out. The Celtics saw several opportunities to put away a youthful Hornets roster, but failed to convert on crucial freebies and ultimately fell in overtime, 121-118.
Jayson Tatum had a dominant night, piling up 45 points (23 in the second quarter) on 15-of-28 shooting from the field, but missed a crucial free throw at the end of overtime. The rest of the Celtics’ vaunted starting lineup struggled. Jaylen Brown found himself in foul trouble early in the second half, while Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday combined to shoot just 10-of-25 from the field and missed six free throws between them — including two by the latter at the end of regulation that would have given the Celtics a four-point lead with seconds remaining. LaMelo Ball had a strong night for the Hornets, scoring 36 points, while Gordon Hayward added 20 and youngster Mark Williams had a 18-point, 16-rebound double-double.
Playing their second game in as many nights, the Celtics seemed a bit slow in comparison to the youthful Hornets in the early minutes of the evening. Ball seemed particularly primed to catch them off balance, as he raced off to nine early points and a jaw-dropping half-court assist to second year center Mark Williams. Boston’s shooting touch just seemed a bit off; they missed their first five threes of the night, and foreshadowed their charity stripe troubles early, shooting 57% on free throws in the first quarter.
Tatum and Brown scored eight first quarter points apiece, but the Celtics’ offense received a jumpstart from a much less likely source: Payton Pritchard. Shrugging off his early season malaise, at least for a moment, he connected on four three-pointers in the opening frame, leading the game with 12 points. The Celtics led the Hornets 31-25 entering the second quarter.
Five straight missed threes became six straight makes, as Tatum cashed in on his second of the game to power the Celtics’ lead ahead. Pritchard’s reign as the game’s leading scorer was short-lived, as Tatum asserted himself against the Charlotte defense. Tatum piled up 31 first half points (23 in the second quarter), and the Celtics’ lead blossomed as a result, crossing into double-digit territory and reaching as high as 18. The Hornets responded with a small run of their own, with an alley-oop from Ball to rookie Brandon Miller forcing a Joe Mazzulla timeout, but the Celtics entered the halftime break with an 11-point advantage, 65-54.
As the second half began, the Celtics were made keenly aware of their shorthanded nature this evening. Derrick White was absent for personal reasons, while Al Horford sat out for his regularly scheduled rest on the second half of the back-to-back, and both were missed. The two-man game of Ball and Williams picked the Celtics’ defense apart, keying an 11-3 run in the opening minutes of the quarter that quickly brought the game back to a one-possession difference.
Compounding matters: foul trouble, as Brown picked up his fifth foul midway through the third quarter and subsequently hit the bench. With the Celtics having left six points on the table via missed free throws through three quarters, they found themselves losing the foul game in a pointed way. They entered the final frame with a six-point lead, 87-81. It was apparent this game was not going to come any easier than the previous two.
The Payton Pritchard Show picked back up in the fourth quarter, as he pushed his season-high scoring total up over the 20-point mark with an early flurry. Also aiding the Celtics was a nice shift from Svi Mykhailiuk, who helped bridge the gap opened by Brown’s foul situation by making a difference with the threat of his movement shooting. They activated Lawler’s Law by hitting the 100-point mark with just under six minutes to play, which coincided with Brown’s return to the floor. They led the Hornets by nine with just over five minutes remaining in regulation.
The Celtics again found themselves facing a close game in crunch time, as the Hornets drew back within two possessions as the clock ticked down. Ball and Williams continued to wreck havoc, with the former cracking 30 points on a deep three-pointer to cut the lead to four with a minute remaining to play. After Tatum missed a layup on the ensuing possession, a layup from Williams — again off a setup from Ball — cut the lead to two.
With 10 seconds remaining, Holiday drew a foul on Ball on a drive to the basket, putting himself on the line with a chance to effectively ice the game. Stunningly, he missed both of the ensuing freebies, and the Hornets were able to tie the game on the next possession. The Hornets scored fast, a gritty layup from Ball, giving the Celtics the ball with seven seconds to play and a chance to win the game. Hauser’s three-point attempt came up short, and the game advanced to overtime.
Early in the overtime period, Ball picked up his fifth foul on a drive from Brown, but the free throw bug infected him as well, and he made just one of the two ensuing freebies. Ball connected on a layup on the other end to put the Hornets ahead by one, and Tatum missed another brutal layup on the ensuing possession. The Celtics left a substantial amount of points on the board on rimmed out layups and missed free throws this evening.
Boston got a reprieve when Ball stepped out of bounds on a corner three-pointer and Williams appeared to score an own goal off a rebound attempt that was credited to Porzingis, but Gordon Hayward followed with a midrange jumper to inch Charlotte ahead by one once again. Tatum drilled an open three-pointer as the clock ticked under a minute remaining, and Hayward followed with two on a cut to the basket to set up a tie game with 28 seconds to play.
Brown missed a three-point attempt, and Bridges connected on his own on the other end. The game once again came down to free throws, and once again, the Celtics fell short — Tatum drew a three-point shooting foul with a chance to tie the game, but converted just two of the three freebies to fall just short.
Next up, the Celtics face another significant test for their restructured roster as they host the Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard and the Milwaukee Bucks this Wednesday at 7:30 PM EST on ESPN.