Not that it’s Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens’ obligation to defend his opponent Friday, but he recognized some good work in the first half.
“It wasn’t just Kyrie,” Stevens said of losing All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving to a possible concussion two minutes into this game. “They took us out of what we wanted to do.”
For a half, anyway. The Charlotte Hornets could have ended their losing streak spectacularly at TD Garden. They led the hottest team in the Eastern Conference – the 11-2 Celtics – by 18 points.
And then they imploded.
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They shot 4-of-20 in the fourth quarter to blow a 12-point lead. In those same 12 minutes, they committed six of their 14 total turnovers. Kemba Walker missed a 19-foot jump shot late that was well guarded by Celtics forward Marcus Morris.
Then, down three on the Hornets’ last possession, they couldn’t successfully in-bound the ball into the frontcourt. Walker (20 points and 11 assists) threw one up from about three-quarters court as time expired.
So the Hornets go winless on this four-game road trip, falling to 5-7.
The shame of not closing the deal Friday is they made some genuine progress. After allowing opponents an average of 113 points per 100 possessions (horrendous!) in losses in San Antonio, Minneapolis and New York, they finally showed some defensive grit versus the Celtics.
Granted, the Celtics, winners of 11 in a row, were far from full strength: Gordon Hayward is out probably for the season with a broken ankle. The Celtics held out center Al Horford, in concussion protocol.
Then, Irving, who has thrived so completely since the trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers, left the game two minutes in, holding a towel to his face.
It’s no revelation the Celtics are deep. Former Duke star Jayson Tatum looked nothing like a rookie, with 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting. Reserve guards Terry Rozier and Shane Larkin combined for 31 points.
But ultimately, this was as much the Hornets’ collapse as the Celtics’ recovery. Center Dwight Howard has been terrific overall in his first dozen games as a Hornet, but Friday was bad: Seven turnovers, a technical foul, a delay-of-game warning, 2-of-8 from the field and 2-of-9 from the foul line.
Howard is notoriously bad at the free-throw line, so there will be nights like that. But Celtics fill-in center Aron Baynes challenged him, including blocking a jump-hook in the second half.
The Celtics were asking to be beaten, missing eight of their first nine shots. Their only basket in that span was off a Howard goal-tend. This was setting up so well. …
And then they couldn’t close.
They flew home after this game, and have four days to contemplate and practice before Wednesday’s nationally-televised game against the reigning Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
That game will be the first time this group wears the classic uniforms from the Hornets’ inception in 1988. What a prime moment to show they know how to close.
Friday was anything but that.