The Boston Celtics were on the verge of blowing a 19-point lead at Charlotte when Brad Stevens addressed his team during a time-out.
His message was succinct.
“You’re wrong if you don’t think there’ll be a game like this in the playoffs,” he told his team. “Find a way to win it.”
They did just that, closing out the game with a 24-10 run for a 121-114 Celtics win that eliminated the Hornets from the playoffs while Boston moved one step closer towards securing the No. 1 or 2 seed in the playoffs which will begin next weekend.
Boston (51-29), which swept the season series with Charlotte, did a lot of good things for most of the night, but seemed to have lost their way about midway through the third quarter after pulling ahead 77-58 which was their largest lead of the game.
From there, the Hornets (36-44) went on a 46-20 run that gave them their biggest lead of the game, 104-97.
Making the rally even more impressive was the fact that they did it primarily without their head coach Steve Clifford who was ejected in the second quarter with 1:09 to play in the half.
Isaiah Thomas led the way for the Celtics with 32 points and six assists while the Hornets were led by 31 points from Nicolas Batum. Also, former UConn star Kemba Walker chipped in 23 points for Charlotte along with eight assists.
In the first half, this game didn’t look as though it would involve Boston needing to make clutch plays in the closing moments.
After a strong finish to the first quarter and dominating play in the second, the Celtics didn’t play with the same edge in the third quarter.
And the Hornets made them pay.
Boston’s lead seemed on the verge of cracking the 20-point barrier early in the third, but a slew of missed shots, not-so-great defensive rotations and their Achilles heel – poor rebounding – all seemed to converge as Boston’s lead was down to 79-70 following an 8-0 run by Charlotte.
After a Marcus Smart steal, the Celtics pushed the lead back to double digits (81-70) following a Kelly Olynyk lay-up.
Charlotte got within seven points (81-74), only for Jonas Jerebko to make it a double-digit game with a 3-pointer.
It was that kind of quarter for the Celtics who found themselves ahead 92-86 going into the fourth.
And while the Hornets aren’t a playoff team, the effort the Celtics had to do in order to win on a night when they had a critical lull at both ends of the floor, is the kind of game they absolutely have to find a way to win in the postseason.
“We just believed in ourselves,” Thomas told CSN’s Abby Chin after the game. “We dug deep. We made plays on both ends of the floor.
Thomas added, “It was a must-win. Tonight, we needed to win this game. We found everything we had inside and we got it done.”