Celtics fall to Pelicans, 115-109

Evan Fournier can be forgiven some opening-night jitters. The new Celtics wing wasn’t able to find his usual deadly range on an 0-for-10 night from the floor.

But Fournier’s struggles were emblematic of his new team (for most of the night). The Celtics, in a freeze the entire night with the exception of a 34-point performance from Jayson Tatum and another 23 from Kemba Walker, thus fell for the second time to the Pelicans this season, 115-109.

On most nights when they lose the Celtics live a pick-em existence — was it the defense, offense, or both.

Brad Stevens felt his team was defensively engaged against the Pelicans — they simply didn’t have an answer for Zion Williamson, again.

But this time it was the offense’s turn to visit Purgatory.

Jaylen Brown missed the game with a hip contusion, and the scorer’s absence showed in a 41.5% Celtics shooting effort, leading Stevens to draw the conclusion that his team simply wasn’t as good offensively as New Orleans. For starters, the Pelicans shot 51% (16-for-31) from downtown.

Williamson literally bowled the Celtics over during the fourth quarter on Feb. 21 loss in New Orleans, and he exacted similar damage this time with a 28-point performance while all of those Pelican 3-pointers were falling in support.

The Pelicans blew it open in the third quarter, and the Celtics, despite tying the score twice in the third, lost hold when Tatum caught Brandon Ingram with an elbow to the jaw, with the result a Flagrant 1 foul that led to a four-point New Orleans possession in the midst of a 10-0 run.

“I thought our offense wasn’t very good tonight. I’m actually looking more at the other end evaluating this game,” Stevens said when asked about his defense. “I thought we got stagnant. I thought we took some really, really hard shots in the second half. So this was one of those nights where we’re gonna have to score the ball, ’cause the other team is really shooting it. So again, I think sometimes you make it more difficult than it is. They played great tonight and we didn’t quite match it. That was, to me, the story of the game. But no excuses for moving parts. We have to play better.”

The struggles of Fournier and Marcus Smart considered, Walker found himself in the role of comforter.

“That’s my brother, so you can always tell when guys is just a little upset with themselves,” Walker said of one interaction with Smart. “So I was just trying to uplift him and give him confidence just like he would do for me, you know? That’s all.

“(Concerning Fournier) it’s difficult coming to a new team, trying to play well and learn a new system. It’s not easy,” he said. “At the end of the day he’s going to be great for us. He had great looks, shots that we all know he can make. He’s definitely going to knock those shots down. Just give him some encouragement, get him not to think too much and just play the game. We believe in him. He’s going to be great for us.”

In hindsight, Fournier was the least of Stevens’ problems.

“I just walked by his locker and said, ‘This is a small blip on your time here,’” said Stevens. ”Guy gets off the plane, he told you he flew to Oklahoma City, got off the plane, was told he was positive, then had to take a bunch of negative tests in a row. I think it’s been a tougher than normal trade for him, but I know he’s not going to make that excuse. But I have no doubt Evan Fournier is going to score a lot of buckets for the Celtics. So very much a blip, not worried about it.”

The sweet sound of crowd noise: The crowd certainly did its part, including two occasions when the officiating crew probably thought the building was full.

“I dont even want to complain, right? We’ve lost so many people in the United States and all over the world,” said Stevens. “The amount of people affected from an employment status, what a terrible tragedy the past year has been. From our own experience playing in the bubble and not playing in front of anybody and then seeing fans occasionally on the road, but not here.

“I’d say it was pretty emotional for me to see it because it just signals maybe if we can buckle down and get through this, then we can have something resembling normal back. Obviously, there’s not a lot of people in there and they all sounded like a lot more people than when we’ve been on the road. I appreciate all the people who came. I appreciate them being here because for those of us that have coached and played basketball games in front of no one, it’s been fun, it’s been basketball, but hard to feel normal or right. So tonight felt a bit more normal or right, even though we missed more shots than they did.”

Marcus Smart has a night to forget: First he picked up a Flagrant 1 foul for charging into a crowd in the fourth, and was then ejected for a second technical foul once the game got out of hand late in the game. He was 6-for-15 from the floor, and 0-for-6 from downtown with five fouls.

“Well we’ll always go back and look at the game in its entirety and go through each of those with each of our individuals,” Stevens said of his point guard. “I think the way that I look at it is more of a team. We weren’t able to match them in the first half. I thought they made shots, they made it really difficult on us. I thought we were flying around, super engaged. Second half, obviously it turned in the third quarter. They kept that up. We just didn’t respond as a group as well as we can. So I’ll focus on the individuals when we talk to them each, but as a group, we came up short.”

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