“Frankly,” Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford said, “we just take too many plays off.”
Taking plays off leads to taking games off. That is quickly leading to a season outside the playoffs.
The Hornets played with intensity and purpose in the fourth quarter against the Boston Celtics. That was simply not true of the first half and that led to a costly 116-104 loss at Time Warner Cable Arena.
There were considerable stakes Monday. Had the Hornets (31-42) won, they would have clinched a potential tiebreaker over the Celtics (33-41).
Instead they lost ground with just nine games left. They would still have to pass Boston, the Brooklyn Nets and the Indiana Pacers to claim the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, and that looked increasingly unlikely after Monday.
Clifford had said he believes the Hornets must go at least 7-3 in their last 10 games. So that bar is now 7-2 in what is left of the schedule.
The sense of frustration in the Hornets’ post-game locker room was obvious.
“Pretty disappointing we had to play catch-up the whole game. That was a huge game for us, so it’s definitely a low at this point,” said point guard Kemba Walker, who scored 14 of his team-high 28 points in the fourth quarter.
Typical of the recent pattern, the Hornets had a flat start. They trailed 17-6 51/2minutes into the game.
“We’ve got to be better from the start. I take part of that (blame) as one of the leaders of this team,” Walker said.// “I’m the point guard, so I’ve got to take a little more pride in having better starts. We’ve got to do better.”
The Hornets overcame the Celtics’ initial burst but trailed by as many as 22 points in the third quarter. The Hornets had to generate 35 points in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to as little as six in the final minute.
The principles by which the Hornets reached the playoffs as the Bobcats last season were defensive rebounding, low-turnover and low-foul. They failed in all those categories Monday.
The Celtics grabbed 14 offensive rebounds. The Hornets committed 17 fouls and 11 turnovers (to the Celtics’ seven).
Clifford was asked about effort Monday. He said that isn’t usually a concern, that there are other reasons this team has lost nine of its last 12 games.
“Effort is a strength of our team; what we have is severe limitations,” Clifford said. “We have to play with purpose. I wouldn’t say it’s effort, it’s mistakes. It’s the mental part of the game. It’s the mental toughness.”
Toughness, both mental and physical, is something small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist consistently provides. He’s out right now with an ankle sprain. Jeff Taylor is now a fill-in starter at small forward, and rookie P.J. Hairston is being used off the bench for his 3-point shooting.
That has created an increasingly diminished role for Lance Stephenson, whom the Hornets signed last summer to a 3-year, $27.4 million contract. Stephenson played 14, 12 and eight minutes in his previous three games. He never played Monday the first time this season he sat out a game by coach’s decision.
“I’m not saying it’s his fault at all,” Clifford said, “but we have struggled to find a group that has played well off the bench in these last few games.”
Asked about not playing, Stephenson said: “It’s out of my hands. It’s in coach’s hands. Its coach’s decision, and all I want to do is stay ready when my number is ready.”
Asked if he was upset, Stephenson added, “Of course. I feel that I can help our team, that I could have helped tonight.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell