BOSTON -- The New Year wasn't supposed to start like this for the Boston Celtics.
After struggling through a dismal offensive shooting night in Chicago on Thursday, Boston's offensive woes continued Friday night against the Pelicans. In the 95-92 setback, the team dropped yet another winnable game decided in the closing minutes, largely due to a lack of offensive execution late in the contest.
The Celtics shot a putrid 34.8 percent in the game, the team's second-worst shooting night of the season. Boston's late-game offense yet again was the biggest problem as the Celtics missed 22 of their 26 shots in the final frame, including all eight attempts over the final 3:30 of the contest. New Orleans outscored the Celtics 10-4 over that pivotal stretch to escape with the road win.
After the game, Brad Stevens & Co. looked for answers as the team blew another late lead.
"I thought we got really good looks for the most part," Stevens said. "I really did. ... We didn't play tentative -- that was a different fourth quarter than we played here when we blew a couple of leads the last couple of weeks. I thought we were much more aggressive, and for whatever reason we didn't make shots."
Boston's offensive woes haven't been an isolated incident in recent weeks. Crucial scoring weapons within Boston's starting lineup have been off their game lately, and that trend continued against the Pelicans.
Jared Sullinger, who continues to be bothered by a bruised left hand, delivered one of the worst shooting nights of his career against New Orleans, going 3-of-17 from the field, including 1-for-12 in the second half.
The hand injury has clearly affected Sullinger's game more in the past couple weeks, as he's shooting just 27.3 percent from the field over his past five games and averaging a mere eight points per contest, six below his season average. Sullinger had been one of Boston's most reliable contributors in the fourth quarter, but he has not been an attractive scoring option recently.
Despite a strong game Thursday night in Chicago, Jordan Crawford fell back into a slump against the Pelicans, missing 12 of his 14 shots over 37 minutes of action. The starting point guard has made just 35.4 percent of his shot attempts in the past 10 games, including an awful 18.4 percent from 3-point range over that stretch.
With Rajon Rondo sidelined, Crawford has been counted upon by Stevens all season for his shot creation late in games, but the point guard hasn't been able to deliver during the team's recent swoon.
Avery Bradley (22 points) and Jeff Green (16 points) chipped in their fair share on Friday, but they were limited to a combined five points in the fourth quarter as Boston's offense crumbled. Stevens wasn't placing blame on his players after the game, knowing they faced a tough challenge playing the Pelicans on short rest after flying into Boston.
"It's frustrating, three one-point losses in the last three weeks," Stevens said. "So that's a hard thing to swallow, but at the same time it's not like they're laying down. They're coming out and competing and tonight they had every excuse in the book if they wanted to use it, and they didn't. I'm disappointed we couldn't get the win, but I'm proud of the way they played."
Unfortunately for Stevens, now is not good timing for moral victories. The Celtics have lost six of their last seven games overall, including four of their last five at TD Garden. The recent slide has dropped Boston out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference for the time being.
With a challenging five-game road trip against several of the elite teams in the Western Conference, the Celtics know they will be facing a stretch that could be a defining portion of their season starting Sunday in Oklahoma City.
"Every road trip is a make-or-break," Gerald Wallace explained. "Especially in the situation we are. We have lost a couple games in a row. We are going on a West Coast trip playing some pretty good teams, and this can send us in the right direction for where we want to go or destroy our whole season."
Wallace continued: "Guys are going to have to pull together. We are going to have to become one on the road. We're going to have some tough battles, like we had tonight, and we have to find ways to win these games."
Reinforcements could be on the way later this month in the form of Rondo, but it's unlikely he'll be able to help the team on its upcoming trip.
For the time being, it's up to Stevens' troops to right the ship and stay in the playoff race, as they face their roughest waters of the season.