The return of Rob Williams promises to strengthen the Celtics in their push for a championship this season. But his long-awaited debut couldn’t save the C’s from their current struggles.
Williams electrified the TD Garden crowd with several dunks in an exciting return, but the bad habits they picked up from the end of their road trip carried back to Boston. They had another horrendous outside shooting night, and it had a domino effect as frustration mounted and a physical and hungry Magic team led by Mo Wagner imposed its will on the Celtics, who lost for the first time at home in regulation with a 117-109 defeat.
Jayson Tatum scored 31 points, but only 11 came in a frustrating second half as the Celtics went on a few runs but never sustained momentum against the Magic. Al Horford was controversially ejected, the C’s lost their composure and never fully recovered.
“I feel like we kind of let missed shots and turnovers kind of affect our play,” Tatum said. “We didn’t have much energy. That was everybody. We had a few good plays but we didn’t put three, four, five of them together.”
The Celtics have now lost three of their last four games, and if not for their wild comeback victory over the Lakers on Tuesday, the feeling might be even worse. But it’s clear they’re playing their worst stretch of basketball this season over the last week.
Among the concerns, their 3-point shooting – which has been one of their greatest strengths to start the season – has leveled off. They’re shooting 29.5% from deep over their last four games, including Friday’s 11-for-46 effort, their second-worst of the season. Their worst came in Monday’s loss to the Clippers, when they shot 9-for-39.
They don’t seem to be worried – yet. Joe Mazzulla likes the open looks they’re continuing to get with their spacing.
“If you’re open you gotta shoot it,” Mazzulla said. “And we’re open, so I’m not going to tell someone who’s open not to shoot it. They have to have the confidence to shoot it, and then you just gotta shoot it. As long as you’re getting quality looks, I think it’s important — that’s important. Is the mindset towards regardless of how we’re shooting is can we still compete on the defensive end? Can we still fight for great shots on offense? And so do we want to say every time we don’t shoot well, we lose? No. …
“So when we don’t shoot well, we have to find other areas to affect the game and that starts with our defense.”
After a sluggish first half, the beginning of the Celtics’ second half couldn’t have gone much worse. Horford was ejected after receiving a Flagrant 2 foul, and soon after Tatum picked up a technical foul for arguing with an official. The C’s, as they’ve done at different points this season, were losing their composure.
The Magic led by 19 three minutes into the third quarter after Markelle Fultz hit a jumper.
The Celtics, though, restored order – at least briefly. Marcus Smart rallied his group, and behind a strong surge from Williams, the Celtics responded with a 15-4 run that cut their deficit to eight. They trailed by seven on multiple occasions, including an 88-81 deficit going into the fourth quarter. But the Magic seemed to have an answer at every point, and the Celtics couldn’t make stops when they needed.
Williams found Malcolm Brogdon for a 3-pointer to cut their deficit to nine with 7:11 left, and Smart followed with a hook that made it eight, but after Mo Bamba and Jaylen Brown traded 3s, Fultz scored six consecutive points to give the Magic a 14-point lead. He soon found Paolo Banchero for 3, and that effectively finished off the Celtics, who didn’t have a repeat of Tuesday’s epic comeback in them.
“They played harder,” Brogdon said. “They made shots, we did not make shots that we usually make tonight, but, overall, I thought they gave more effort. And I think that’s the issue. It’s not the non-shotmaking, it’s that. We’ll pick it up on Sunday for sure.”
Other takeaways from the game:
– The excitement was palpable – from inside the locker room to the bench to the arena – for Williams’ return. When he checked in for the first time with 7:03 left in the first quarter, the center received a standing ovation from the crowd and even his teammates.
But, almost to be expected, Williams didn’t necessarily have the smoothest start. Less than two minutes after he entered, Smart found him on a lob that he finished for a loud dunk for his first points of the season, but otherwise, he looked rusty. Williams was moving well but looked lost occasionally as he settled into his first game in almost six months. He was also whistled for three fouls in his first four minutes, and may have even avoided a fourth.
It seemed like Williams just needed some time to get his legs under him. He looked better and stronger as the game progressed. As the Celtics responded from a frustrating start to the second half with their third-quarter run, Williams’ impact was felt. He capped an 11-2 run with a monster putback slam and finished two other dunks to go along with strong defense as the Celtics cut a 19-point deficit to single digits. Williams finished with nine points on 4-for-4 shooting, five rebounds and a block in 18 minutes.
“I thought he picked up where I left off as far as his weak side defense,” Mazzulla said. “I thought he did a good job with presence at the rim, and he just looked comfortable out there so I was happy for him.”
– Horford returned after a five-game absence, but it didn’t last as long as he hoped. With 10:39 left in the third quarter, Horford delivered an errant elbow to the midsection of Wagner, and after a review, he was assessed a Flagrant 2 and ejection. Horford, who clearly disapproved of the call, walked off the court as he was ejected from a game for the first time since 2015.
“That was unbelievable,” Tatum said. “I couldn’t believe Al got thrown out of the game. I didn’t think that was warranted, especially once they went to go review and they saw that Mo fouled him first. That’s why I got to shoot free throws. So I mean, sometimes Al get tired of people grabbing on him and the ref not seeing it. … I don’t think Al deserved to get thrown out of the game at all.”