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Hornets 97, Celtics 78

Celtics look listless and remain winless

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / December 29, 2011
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NEW ORLEANS - The Celtics would be doing their loyal fan base a disservice if they blamed this one on fatigue or the demanding post-lockout schedule. Last night’s performance against the Hornets was lethargic at best, as a team that has prided itself on mental guile during the Doc Rivers era melted in the fourth quarter.

A Hornets team in refresh mode after the departures of Chris Paul and David West dominated the Celtics after falling behind, 9-2. They made more plays, were more aggressive under the basket, and showed more desire. When Marco Bellinelli hit an uncontested 25-footer early in the fourth quarter, the Celtics realized they had little chance to rally.

And so they folded, losing their third straight to begin the season, 97-78, at New Orleans Arena. It’s their first 0-3 start since the 2006-07 season, the year prior to the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.

As for Garnett, his three-game production has been disappointing. Last night, he managed 8 points in 27 minutes, unable to corral the duo of Emeka Okafor and Chris Kaman. Garnett has scored just 35 points, but he looked even more defeated against the rebuilding Hornets.

While there was encouragement in the losses to the Knicks and Heat, last night offered nothing but bewilderment because the Celtics are no longer intimidating opponents - not even close.

Allen refused to use age and tired bodies as an explanation. It’s Game 3.

“I wasn’t fatigued,’’ said Allen, who led the Celtics with 15 points. “I wouldn’t use that as an excuse or reason. I felt good out there tonight. We’ve all been in this situation plenty of times before. So, that’s not an excuse for nobody.

“Our defense was terrible. Offensively, we didn’t execute. We looked scattered out there on the floor, so that’s just us and how we didn’t execute on both ends of the floor, and we know better. You look around at the guys in this locker room and we know better.’’

The Hornets shot 45.6 percent, but it was how they scored that demoralized the Celtics’ paper-thin defense. They attempted 25 free throws, scored 46 points in the paint, and had 21 second-chance points. Even without top scorer Eric Gordon (bruised knee), the Hornets bullied the Celtics, and by the fourth quarter they were simply handing over their lunch money with little resistance.

Carl Landry was the biggest menace, ruling the paint with 11 rebounds in 29 minutes. Jarrett Jack, the replacement for Paul, beat Rajon Rondo repeatedly on pick-and-rolls and hit a series of runners in the lane, finishing with a game-high 21 points.

The once-proud and daunting Celtics defense is a memory, replaced by a group of uncertain defenders who don’t yet trust each other.

“We looked old tonight,’’ said coach Doc Rivers. “It’s frustrating because early on it looked like we had things going, and then we turned the ball over in that one stretch. They got the lead. They got their energy up and I really never thought we could match their energy.’’

With little production from his front line, Rivers used rookie Greg Stiemsma to replace Jermaine O’Neal, and the move was effective. Stiemsma blocked six shots in 20 minutes and was more active and aggressive than O’Neal, who appeared discouraged after missing some early layups.

The Celtics shrunk a 15-point deficit (67-52) to 9 (72-63), but they had nothing left for the final quarter. The Hornets extended the lead to 18 midway through the period and Rivers cleared the bench, a humbling reality for a team expected to compete with the Heat and Bulls for the Eastern Conference title.

They return home for tomorrow’s game against the Pistons desperate for a win, for a hint of momentum.

“No excuses, you’ve got to come out here and play the game,’’ Garnett said. “This is an adjustment league and we have to adjust. We have no choice.’’

Rivers said before the game he wasn’t concerned about fatigue because his team had Monday off before the Miami game, and it was the first back-to-back set of the season. Yet after that 9-2 spurt to begin the game, there was little reason to believe the Celtics would produce anything but a pedestrian effort.

They looked a step slow in the first half, and the Hornets were looking to show their fans they are more than just a way to pass the time between Saints Sundays.

New Orleans went on a 28-11 run and led by 10 (30-20) after a Greivis Vasquez jumper early in the second quarter.

Once again, the Celtics were consumed with the officials, though they had a gripe. Late in the second quarter, the Celtics had been whistled for 11 fouls, while the Hornets had just four. But the Celtics’ woes can’t be blamed on the officiating.

They were outplayed and outworked by a team they expected to beat. And there are few explanations for the slow start.

“I think we’re struggling just as much as anybody who hasn’t been together for long stretches,’’ said guard Keyon Dooling. “We’ll get it figured out. We were on our heels and we’ll try to bounce back. We can’t be that team. We have to be a hit-first team if we want to be successful. We’ll get it corrected. I’m sure of it.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashburn14

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