As Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford left his postgame press conference Saturday, he crumpled the night’s box score and chucked the ball of paper at the ground.
Only thing more appropriate would have been if Clifford had mangled a third-quarter play-by-play.
The Hornets’ four-game winning streak is history following a 98-93 home loss to the Boston Celtics. The primary damage came in the third quarter when the Celtics made seven of 10 3-point attempts to enter the fourth quarter with an eight-point lead.
The Hornets still had their chances, leading by as many as six points in the fourth quarter. But what the Celtics in general and point guard Isaiah Thomas in particular did in the third will be the lasting memory from Saturday.
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Thomas is a blur of speed and change-of-direction. This is not news to the Hornets, as he busted them up twice in the second half of last season. Thomas’ ball-penetration was so disruptive in the third quarter that the Hornets had no choice but to keep giving help defensively. That left Boston’s shooters wide open.
Shooting guard Avery Bradley made all three of his 3-point attempts in the third. Thomas made both of his. Jae Crowder was 2-of-4 and James Young was 0-of-1.
That cost the Hornets the lead, and they trailed by as many as 12 points. That’s not an intimidating deficit; they have won six games this season after trailing by 10 or more points. But coming off an exhausting road victory Friday over the Memphis Grizzlies, the Hornets had little room for error Saturday.
Clifford said he was OK with the defense the guards played on Thomas, that if something needed correction, it was how the Hornets dealt with screeners on those plays.
In any case it created a dynamic late in the fourth quarter when everyone needed to play hero to save the winning streak. Kemba Walker made a 16-foot pull-up with 13 seconds left to trim Boston’s lead to one, but then fouled Crowder while trying to keep the Celtics from advancing the ball past mid-court.
Crowder made both free throws and then Nic Batum missed a 30-foot 3-point attempt wide-right. Batum finished the game 2-of-10 from 3-point range.
Finally, Celtics forward Evan Turner scored on a backdoor cut off an in-bounds pass to secure Boston’s victory. It dropped the Hornets to 14-10.
That Charlotte record is respectable, particularly considering the last four teams they beat are playoff contenders.
But Clifford will have plenty to coach up at practice Monday, following a day off Sunday. The Hornets’ offensive firepower has gotten them by and the defense improved in general over the week.
But there was some slippage defensively Saturday that needs to get cleaned up before they get on that plane to Orlando Tuesday afternoon. The schedule is light – two games in six days – so there is plenty of time to fix what broke Saturday.