An optimist would say that the Boston Celtics, down 23 points with less than a half left against the Los Angeles Clippers, showed a lot of heart, never gave in, and put forth a monumental effort in nearly coming all the way back to tie the game. A pessimist would say that, had they not allowed the Clippers to shoot 68 percent in the first half while shooting just 40 percent themselves, they never would have needed such an effort in the first place, and they were lucky not to get blown out.
Whichever way one might look at it, there’s no denying that the Clippers beat the Celtics, 108-103, Wednesday night in Boston. The loss snapped a five-game Celtics winning streak and let the Chicago Bulls climb to within 1.5 games of first place in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics had no answer for Clippers point guard Mo Williams, who in a team-high 41 minutes scored 28 points on 9-17 shooting.
Williams was especially lethal in the fourth quarter, seemingly killing every potential Celtics rally single-handedly. When the Celtics brought the game to within three with 5:22 left in the fourth, there was Williams, drawing a three-shot foul on Rajon Rondo and knocking down all three. When the Celtics responded with two Paul Pierce free throws to make it 89-85 Clippers, there was Williams draining a three-pointer, one of his five. When Ray Allen laid it in with 3:12 left in the game to cut the lead to two possessions, there was Williams, knocking down a 25-foot trey to make 100-91 with 2:46.
Even when he wasn’t scoring, Williams hurt the Celtics. When Kevin Garnett responded to Williams’ 25-footer with a 13-footer of his own, making it 100-93, Williams found center DeAndre Jordan for the slammer, pushing the lead again to nine.
Jordan was Williams’ second fiddle Wednesday night, but only barely. Jordan missed one shot all night long and was a monster underneath the basket. Of Jordan’s nine baskets, six were dunks, and another was a point-blank tip shot. Jordan finished the night with 21 points and nine rebounds. A career .402 free-throw shooter, Jordan missed four of his first five free throws. But up 104-100 with 15 seconds left in the game, Jordan drained his last two to effectively kill the last Celtics rally.
All five Celtics starters scored in double digits Wednesday night. Allen led the team with 23 points, including three three-pointers. His second of the night cut the Clippers lead to 86-80 with 7:35 left in the fourth. His third cut it to 97-91 with 3:12 left. But he missed another from 24 feet with just under two minutes left in the game that would have cut the lead to 100-96 Clippers, and power forward Blake Griffin dunked it on the other end (he does that) for the five-point swing.
Nenad Krstic had his best game yet for the Celtics, scoring 20 points on 7-10 shooting while collecting nine boards in 38 minutes of play. Twelve of his points came in the fourth quarter, including the Celtics’ first seven. He is quickly integrating into the Boston offensive schemes and has already shown why Danny Ainge traded for him.
Garnett scored 16 points while collecting eight rebounds. Normally, this would be a solid offensive showing. Only problem is, it took him 19 shots to do it, only knocking down five.
Pierce kicked in 19 points, while Rondo came close to a triple-double, scoring 13 while rebounding 7 and notching 9 assists in 43 minutes. Rondo also stole three Clippers passes, but the Celtics never got their transition offense going. Despite forcing 16 Clippers turnovers, the Celtics could only convert them into seven points. They scored just 12 on fast breaks.
The Celtics’ starters out-scored the Clippers 91-82, but their bench was not able to match the offensive production. The Clippers bench more than doubled up the Celtics bench, out-scoring them 26-12.
It was inevitable that the Celtics would eventually lose, especially now that they’ve clinched a playoff spot. On paper, the then 24-40 Clippers seemed unlikely to be the ones to do it. But the Clippers came into this game on a three-game winning streak themselves, and it took the Celtics too long to take them seriously.
Boston will next take on the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday at the Wells Fargo Center. The 76ers are 12-5 since Feb. 1. With the Bulls and Miami Heat still in the hunt for the top spot in the East, the Celtics must be careful not to suffer an extended letup down the stretch.