The Celtics fell to the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday, making it their third loss in the last four games. Boston had won nine of its last 11 games after beating the Golden State Warriors on April 17, but now finds itself tied for the No. 7 seed with the Miami Heat.
Is this a regression back to some bad tendencies from earlier in the season? Or is this simply a blip in the Celtics’ re-emergence among the teams battling for the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed? There are arguments on both sides, but Sunday’s loss may stand on its own because of Charlotte’s level of play. With that being said, this one really hurts Boston with its impact on the Eastern Conference standings.
The Hornets jumped all over the Celtics in another underwhelming matinee performance from Brad Stevens and Co. Charlotte’s energy, ball movement and work ethic were on another level than those of the Celtics, and, to no surprise, Boston was never able to make this one close. The Hornets had four players score 20 or more points for the first time since 2018 and shot 50.5 percent from the floor, including 21 3-pointers on 43 attempts. They assisted on 39 of their 47 made shots, which was the most assists by a Boston opponent this season. Charlotte came ready to play and showed it from the jump, which prevented the Celtics from crawling back into this one.
“We got outplayed, out-coached, out-hustled,” Stevens said after the loss. “They were the better team today. I thought that their speed gave us fits and they really pushed the ball. And when they got in the half-court, they kept it flying around. I thought we were slow to move it and they were fast to move it.”
“The toughest team sets the rules of the game, and they set it right from the opening tip and we were on our heels the whole night,” Stevens added.
Jaylen Brown had a similar reaction to Boston’s second consecutive loss.
MORE FOR YOU
“They came out, smacked us in the mouth, and we kind of never recovered,” Brown said. “I think they played extremely well. We definitely didn’t match their energy today and we lost. But the Hornets played extremely well.”
Boston has made a habit of getting down early, but unlike Sunday, they’ve often been able to get back into games down the stretch. Fourth-quarter deficits even became a regular occurrence during the Celtics’ six-game winning streak earlier this month. In other words, they’re no strangers to playing from behind, however that becomes a dangerous habit when you approach the postseason alongside their recent carelessness with the ball.
Turnovers have been a thorn in Boston’s side this season, but the issue seems to be amplified of late. Keep in mind, though, that the month of April has been a positive one for the Celtics, despite not taking care of the ball. Boston is 7-2 this season in games with at least 20 turnovers, but is that actually a good thing? Wins are good, yes. Bad habits and less rest for the Celtics rotation, on the other hand, are not.
The Celtics have proven that they can overcome turnovers to win games, but that isn’t something they should be reliant on, especially at this point in the season. Take Friday night’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets as an example. After trailing by as much as 17, Boston came back and cut the lead to three after a series of good possessions, only to see that momentum quickly vanished thanks to turnovers and sloppy decision-making on both ends. At some point, being careless with the ball becomes at least partially habitual, and that will inevitably come back to bite you.
The final note regarding Boston’s turnover problem is pertinent to Jayson Tatum. The All-Star wing now has three straight games with five turnovers, and four in a row with at least four. If Tatum is going to be the Celtics’ highest usage player for the rest of the year, which he will be, he’s going to have to start taking care of the ball, however, Sunday seemed to be a game where Tatum was just off. He was flat from the start and never really found his groove, even when Boston cut the Charlotte lead to nine. As Stevens recently noted, a night off certainly is in order for the 23-year-old, so don’t be surprised to see him pop up on the injury report in the near future.
Wednesday’s rematch with the Hornets now carries an added level of importance for both teams. If Charlotte were to beat Boston again, they would be right back in the fight to escape a play-in matchup. Giving up two games in the standings to the Hornets at this point in the season is not something the Celtics can afford, especially with how the standings are shaking out. Even after Boston’s terrific April stretch, they still remain in the same situation, which shows how packed the middle of the Eastern Conference truly is. While the Celtics stepped up their play, the New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat did so as well.
With all of this in mind, the remainder of Boston’s schedule plays in their favor. The remaining 11 matchups are all winnable games for the Celtics, although there are a few with serious playoff ramifications. Wednesday’s meeting with Charlotte, a back-to-back with Miami and the season finale vs. New York will each directly impact Boston’s playoff picture. How the Celtics come out and perform in those particular matchups, assuming relative health, could present a reliable preview of the team we will see in the postseason.
Coming into this season, we all knew Boston’s margin for error was minimal and particularly smaller than last year’s team. That has been true since training camp and it will remain that way throughout the playoffs, meaning the Celtics need to be at their best to find success.
“In the past, we may have been able to get away with a subpar performance in different games,” Stevens said Sunday. “This team hasn’t won a game all year that I can remember where we played subpar. So that just is a good indicator that we need to be on it. We need to be better. We need to play better.”