Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford had called Wednesday’s victory over the Chicago Bulls the most complete game of the season.
So by comparison the Hornets’ 106-98 road loss to the Boston Celtics was a complete disaster.
The Hornets (23-33) blew a 16-point third-quarter lead with sloppy turnovers and befuddled defense once the Celtics predictably went to a small lineup in the fourth quarter.
If this game ends up costing them a playoff spot, they have no one to blame but themselves. They can’t keep losing to the bottom half of the Eastern Conference and expect to get to eighth at the end of the season.
“We didn’t take good care of the ball tonight. That is a team that gets up and pressures and tries to speed you up. You’ve got to be strong, make the right decisions,” said shooting guard Gerald Henderson.
“Myself specifically I had five turnovers. That’s uncharacteristic of who we are.”
The Hornets average the fewest turnovers in the NBA at 11.8 per game. They finished with 16 turnovers Friday, leading to 21 Celtics points.
That’s a particularly high conversion rate. Typically a team considers it a success to average one point for every opponent turnover.
“That’s what they do. When they have a small lineup in there they can switch a lot and play a little quicker at both ends,” Henderson said.
The Hornets had been warned in shootaround Friday the Celtics were likely to go small late in a close game. Boston has gone through a series of rebuilding trades this season that sent veterans Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green to the Western Conference.
The Celtics are regrouping post-trade deadline around 5-foot-9 point guard Isaiah Thomas off the bench. Thomas hasn’t yet practiced with his new team, so he knows only a smidgen of the offense.
So coach Brad Stevens tells Thomas to improvise and create off the pick-and-roll. Thomas finished with 28 points and seven assists Friday. He got to the foul line 10 times and effectively blew up Charlotte’s fourth-quarter defense with 14 points.
“Isaiah Thomas basically controlled the entire second half,” said Hornets coach Steve Clifford. “He did it in the pick-and-roll and we made all kinds of mistakes on it. And when they downsized they crushed us on the offensive glass. They had 12 second-chance points in the fourth.
“Just all on hustle plays – there was no size over there to rebound. It’s just basically hit your guy and get the ball. We didn’t do that.”
The Celtics going so small, guarding Jefferson with 6-foot-6 Jae Crowder late, should have created opportunity. But Jefferson scored just two second-half points, missing all three of his shots from the field.
The Hornets got a good offensive night from point guard Mo Williams, who made six 3-pointers on his way to 31 points. But Williams couldn’t contain Thomas off the dribble or close out effectively on 3-pointers.
But this unraveling all started with turnovers.
“They’re careless mistakes,” Clifford lamented. “Just out there – ball’s out – and strips.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell