CHARLOTTE, N.C – Heading into Time Warner Cable Arena Monday night, the Boston Celtics were as hot as any team in the league with seven straight wins, handing the Heat, Clippers, Nuggets and Lakers all losses during that stretch.
Who’d have thought it’d be the lowly Charlotte Bobcats, the bunch with the worst record in the NBA, that would cool them off?
As if a blown four-point lead over the final minute to thaw the streak wasn’t bad enough, their most significant loss may have come at the end of the 3rd quarter when LeAndro Barbosa, who had really come on for the Celtics recently, had to be carried off the floor from what Kevin Garnett says is a season-ending left knee injury – one the Celtics cannot afford.
“We’re falling like flies right now,” Garnett said. “We got the news when we came into the locker room. Obviously, it’s tough. It’s tough all the way around. You’re meshing with these guys and then all the sudden you’re seeing a season-ending injury. It’s just tough, man.”
The Celtics might have been able to swallow this a month ago. Before All-Star Rajon Rondo went out for the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Before rookie Jared Sullinger was lost for the season.
Now, their backcourt consists of Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee, and Jason Terry. That’s it, on a team with perhaps more mileage on it than any team in the league.
It’s crushing for a bench that has been devastating during this seven-game streak, averaging 43.5 points per game as a unit, and Barbosa’s minutes had been up 13 per game since Rondo’s injury.
Instead of what they thought was a gelling bench comes another reshuffle with Chicago and road dates with the Nuggets and Lakers awaiting.
“Injuries happen in this league, but you’re in this league for a reason. You just got to continue to come together,” said Jeff Green, who led the Celtic bench with 18 points.
The only consistency about the Celtics in 2013 has been their inconsistency. Four losses. Six wins. Six losses, and now a seven-game win streak that ends in Charlotte of all places. And it happened on a night where the Celtics led by 4 with a minute to play.
But just like the rest of the night, Charlotte abused the Celtics in transition, getting Gerald Henderson loose for a wide-open three to cut the lead right back to one and give the Bobcats life.
“We got some great shots but they basically beat us in transition,” Celtics head coach Doc Rivers said. “They got a lot of early offense where they push the ball. We were unable to get back and match up pretty much all game, and you could see that they knew that by the way they pushed the ball.”
The Celtics got three clean looks to either take the lead or tie. Garnett from 18 feet for the win, then a three-point look from Pierce to tie it and then Bradley for a wide-open chance to tie it from the corner. None went down.
“You can’t be too ticked because you got everything you wanted,” Garnett said. “Set great picks, got good looks at it, should have done a little more time management but like I said I’m not going to take anything away from [Charlotte]. I think the blow of Barbosa is kind of like the cloud or the fog that’s in the room right now but Charlotte played well tonight. They beat us in transition and that’s it.”
The Bobcats, owners of the 28th-ranked defense in the NBA, were the ones who got the stops down the stretch. Not the team who ranks first in the league in defensive rating since the start of the New Year.
“Defense is what wins games in this league,” Kemba Walker said. “At times, those guys made some tough shots. We played some great defense. Down the stretch, we just really came together. We were all in the right spots. We were talking. That’s the biggest thing, communication.”
For Charlotte, perhaps more promising than getting crucial stops, something they’ve been unable to do all season in crunch time, was the play of Byron Mullens. Not only did he notch 25 points, but he also had a career-high 18 rebounds, showing a toughness unseen before against the league’s toughest and cagiest vet.
“Sometime it’s a little frustrating to watch Byron play because he maybe gives away to the three too much, but we’re walking him into the post more and saying, ‘You’ll get more touches but you have to live with your back to the basket more for us.’ I think he’s buying into that,” Bobcats head coach Mike Dunlap said. “The thing that is remarkable is that he’s gone from 3.7 rebounds per game to being our best rebounder. He’s getting his nose in there in traffic and taking them off the rim.”