When this uneasy evening was over for Doc Rivers, his most pressing concern was not the performance of his son, Austin, but the miserable display by his team, which reverted to its December days with this effort.
While Austin Rivers scored 8 points in 23 minutes against his father’s team, the most important result for the elder Rivers was a distasteful 90-78 loss to the Hornets, who spent Wednesday evening pounding the ball in the paint and stymieing the Celtics defensively.
Against the team with the second-worst record in the Western Conference and without leading scorer Eric Gordon, the Celtics shot 40.5 percent in the second half and scored just 35 points.
Just when the Celtics were rising in the Eastern Conference standings, beginning to find cohesion and consistency, they respond with a putrid performance against a club who had just played the night before.
Yet, the Hornets were brimming with energy, and Rivers blamed himself for his team’s lethargy.
“We didn’t play well, just let our guard down a bit,” he said. “I felt it [Tuesday at practice] and didn’t do anything about it. I am kicking myself more than them. I always write stuff down after practices and the first note was ‘guard down.’ I think I wrote it three different times. I thought we came out and played like that. That’s on us. It was a good lesson.”
The listless Celtics saw their six-game winning streak end, trailing the entire second half and getting outscored, 12-0, after drawing to within 75-71 with 6:22 left. The Celtics missed 10 of 16 free throws, 14 3-pointers, and were constantly frustrated offensively by New Orleans’s size and aggression in the paint.
And they were guilty of fouling way too often. The combination of Al-Farouq Aminu and Greivis Vasquez combined to shoot 4 for 16 in the second half but totaled 21 points — 13 on free throws. The Celtics were a step slow, unable to counter New Orleans’s quickness, and were often whistled for reach-in fouls.
It was a disappointing ending to the team’s best stretch in what has been a mercurial season.
“There was a lot of inconsistency, especially after the first eight minutes,” said Paul Pierce, who scored 12 points on 5-for-16 shooting. “We got out to a good lead and then we just broke down too many times. We gathered momentum and then we’d lose it. We missed a lot of wide-open shots. We didn’t rebound. When you got a team who’s young and plays hard and is vastly improving, it gives them confidence once they get back in the game.”
After the worst stretch of his rookie season — 3 for 26 from the field in his past nine games — Austin Rivers was 3 for 6, scoring on a vicious crossover layup in the second half and adding two free throws.
There wasn’t much interaction during the game between father and son, and Doc acknowledged there is a sense of relief that the matchup is done.
“You know, it was strange. It was funny, the one time he did something, I was about to say something and I didn’t say it — I caught myself — I forgot he was on the other team,” Doc said. “Other than that, it’s just a strange dynamic. I didn’t enjoy it, honestly. I know it’s neat for everyone else, but as a father, I don’t know if I enjoyed that. George Karl this summer, we were laughing, and he said, ‘It’s going to be strange’ and he said, ‘your [son’s] going to play more [than usual].’ And he was right.”
The Hornets dwarfed the Celtics with their imposing lineup. They have five players 6 feet 9 inches or taller and all five played significant roles. Vasquez is 6-6 and easily looked over Rajon Rondo or Avery Bradley. It was Bradley’s least-effective defensive game because Vasquez had no problem using his girth to get into the paint.
And he was able to chase down a game-high 11 rebounds as the Celtics were no match on the boards. No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis notched a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) and Robin Lopez (17 points) scored with relative ease off pick and rolls.
“It’s definitely a lesson to be learned, none of these games are easy,” forward Kevin Garnett said. “It’s that simple. I thought we had shots that we normally make. We missed those shots. They executed and made shots when they had to.”
Rivers came off the bench, reporting into the game at the 4:19 mark of the first quarter, getting a nice round of applause from the many who probably remembered the curly-haired kid standing next to Doc as the seconds trickled down during Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals.
With Gordon out to rest his sore right knee, Rivers played his most minutes in nearly three weeks, recording three field goals. After each of his baskets, there were no emotions from his father.
If the Celtics learned anything about their upstart opponent, it’s that they play hard under Doc Rivers disciple Monty Williams and the Hornets spent most of the evening outplaying the Celtics with and without Austin Rivers.
“Yeah, I still want them to do well,” Austin said of the Celtics. “Obviously when we play them I’m trying to win but I watch a lot of their games and I want them to do well because I know a lot of those guys. And obviously I want my dad to do well. Just because he invests so much time and he never sleeps. In the summertime when I’m home and working out, or hanging out and come back at night, or if I go get a snack at 4 in the morning he’s still doing stuff with basketball. So I just always want him to do well because I love him.”