On Thursday, the Boston Celtics’ quest for the top seed in the Eastern Conference was hindered by the Atlanta Hawks.
A night later, the Celtics received assistance from the Hawks.
The Celtics get a chance to aid their jockeying for the best record in the East on Saturday when they visit the Charlotte Hornets.
Boston (50-29) is one game behind the Cleveland Cavaliers with three games remaining. As they practiced for their final road game of the season, on paper it appeared the deficit would be wider.
Instead, the Celtics were able to enjoy Friday night a little better when the Hawks posted a 114-100 victory in Cleveland, doing so while resting Paul Millsap, Kent Bazemore, Dwight Howard and Dennis Schroder.
The Celtics experienced trouble stopping Millsap in his second game back from a left knee injury and the result was a 123-116 loss to the Hawks. Millsap gave the Boston’s defense fits with 26 points and also added 12 rebounds in 29 minutes.
Being unable to knock off Atlanta dropped the Celtics to 10-7 in their last 17 games. It also came on the heels of a 114-91 drubbing at home by the Cavaliers that put Boston in this predicament heading into Saturday.
Boston might have enjoyed Atlanta’s win in Cleveland better if it did not trail for the final 44-plus minutes. Or if it did not miss 20 of 27 shots, including 11 of 12 3-pointer and six free throws in the fourth quarter when it actually outscored Atlanta by three points.
Still the Celtics gained some optimism about their defense that they hope carries over to Charlotte and home games against Brooklyn and Milwaukee.
“After coming out like that (Wednesday) night, our first half was really frustrating,” point guard Isaiah Thomas said. “The second half, we got a little bit of life. We know what we’ve got to do and we’ve got to do it. ”
“I’m very encouraged from this loss because we played the way we wanted to play, we dictated this game the way we wanted to dictate (in the second half),” forward Jae Crowder said. “We came out and let those guys hit us first. We’ve been doing that for a week now. It was bad habits. We let it carry over and we’ve got to stop that.”
Thomas and Crowder combined for 59 points Thursday, but it was others whose struggles did not help when a comeback fell short. Avery Bradley shot 6 of 19 and Al Horford was 1 of 8.
Charlotte (36-43) will take the court mathematically alive but also in need of significant help to reach the playoffs as it sits three games out of the eighth spot. As soon as Chicago and Indiana get to 40 wins, the Hornets will be eliminated a year after winning 48 games.
There’s still three games left and we never know what can happen,” Charlotte’s Nicolas Batum said. “So we’ve got to still play those games.
When the Hornets tip off Saturday, Chicago likely will be near halftime in Brooklyn while Indiana is starting its game in Orlando at the same time.
A five-point win over Washington on March 18 started a 7-2 run to get the Hornets back in contention. After a 12-point win at Oklahoma City on Sunday, the Hornets dropped a 118-111 decision in Washington on Tuesday and were dealt a 112-99 home loss by Miami on Wednesday.
“Tonight was six (games) in nine (days) for us,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “I don’t make excuses for our guys, but that was not lack of effort. We (were) exhausted.”
Perhaps a sign of exhaustion was Kemba Walker. He was 6 of 17 from the field, a night after scoring 37 in Washington.
Even if the Hornets miss the playoffs, Walker will enjoy a notable season. Walker has totaled 1,807 points and needs four more to pass Larry Johnson for the third-most points scored in a season for a Hornet.
Johnson totaled 1,810 during the 1992-93 season, which ended in the second round of the postseason against the Knicks.
Boston is 7-1 in the last eight meetings and is going for the season sweep. Thomas is averaging 28.3 points in three games against Charlotte this season. Walker is averaging 26.5 points in his two games against Boston.