5 takeaways as Zion Williamson, Pelicans hold off Celtics despite Jayson Tatum’s 34 points


COMMENTARY

The Boston Celtics saw their two-game winning streak snapped by the New Orleans Pelicans as they opened a seven-game home stand with a 115-109 loss.

Here’s what happened.

The big picture

The Celtics played well for most of the first quarter and rallied ferociously in the fourth, but large swaths of Monday’s game — the Celtics’ first home game with fans in the arena — looked like many of their losses this season. The opposing team’s star dominated, the Celtics looked lifeless and made a heap of mistakes (which we will get to), and the fans in the arena echoed the fans online.

"Way to welcome your fans back," shouts someone from the crowd.

"You suck," yells another.

— Jay King (@ByJayKing) March 30, 2021

Star of the game

Zion Williamson — 28 points, 11-for-22 shooting, eight rebounds, four steals, three assists

Williamson is a completely new type of basketball player — an explosive 6-foot-6 point forward whose shot chart looks like Shaquille O’Neal — and the Celtics had no answer for him aside from packing the paint and hoping for the best. His gravity around the rim opened up 3-pointers for his teammates as the Celtics’ defense panicked trying to slow him down, and after Williamson figured out Luke Kornet’s length, he was impossible to contain.

What it means

The Celtics, it seems, did not fix everything by trading away Daniel Theis, Jeff Teague, and Javonte Green. After a pair of encouraging wins, the Celtics had a chance to build a little extra momentum with a win at home in front of fans against a decent Western Conference team.

In the first and fourth quarters, they played inspired basketball. In the second and third, they looked like the pre-deadline Celtics. Perhaps when Fournier gets his sea legs, they will be better. Maybe they are too flawed to be truly competitive. This team is a Rohrschach test of sorts: You can see different things from different angles, and what you see might say something about you.

Takeaways

1. Having fans in the building did seem to make a difference for the Celtics as they rallied in the fourth quarter — fans roared after Marcus Smart took a charge from Zion Williamson, which sparked a big rally as the Celtics’ energy visibly spiked. Fans also let the Celtics feel it when they were struggling, booing them enthusiastically at their worst moments.

After the game, Brad Stevens said he was emotional seeing fans back in the arena and thanked everyone who came. A noisy TD Garden felt like one step closer to normalcy.

2. Luke Kornet impressed in the first half, knocking down a pair of 3-pointers and contested well at the rim. Stevens noted previously that the Celtics were intrigued by his defensive positioning, and his size is a deterrent even if he isn’t the burliest defender on the floor. The Celtics reportedly are willing to go hunting on the buyout market, but the early returns from Kornet — the player who presumably would be cut in pursuit of another option — are much more encouraging than previously expected.

3. Fournier’s debut left a lot to be desired — he finished scoreless on 0-for-10 shooting. He had a pair of airballs, including one in the final three minutes as the Celtics were trying to rally.

A new player struggling is hardly a surprise, and Brad Stevens brushed away concerns after the game, saying he stopped by Fournier’s locker to tell him this was a blip on the radar. The Celtics (correctly) aren’t particularly concerned about Fournier.

4. Marcus Smart made one of the strangest mistakes you’ll ever see on a basketball court. With 0.3 seconds remaining on the shot clock for the Pelicans (and we must stress this, because it’s important: *for the Pelicans*), the Celtics forced a jump ball. Brandon Ingram and Payton Pritchard both refused to jump on the initial jump ball, then Pritchard finally tipped it back to Smart on the second one.

Smart then did this.

Put this in the Louvre: pic.twitter.com/06UT2Utl7o

— Chris Grenham (@chrisgrenham) March 30, 2021

Clearly, Smart thought the Celtics were the ones with 0.3 remaining on the clock. He was later kicked out of the game in the final minute and finished 0-for-6 from three. He has had better games, and performances like Monday will only intensify the noise from segments of fans and media who wanted him to be traded for Aaron Gordon.

5. Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard both played decently well. Nesmith hit a three and converted a tough layup, while Pritchard finished 3-for-4 from deep. Pritchard in particular has seen his production spike recently — in the last 15 games, he’s shooting 51.1 percent from deep. The Celtics could really use a nice stretch from him after handing him second-unit point-guard duties full time.

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