CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Boston Celtics are in the middle of a fierce battle for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff berth, and they clearly played with a sense of urgency Monday night.
The Celtics outworked the Charlotte Hornets en route to a 116-104 victory that moved them back into a tie for eighth in the Eastern Conference standings along with the Brooklyn Nets.
Guard Avery Bradley led the way with 30 points, and the Celtics clicked offensively from the start. They opened the game by hitting eight of their first nine shots and went on to shoot 50.6 percent from the field with only seven turnovers — three through three quarters, when they built a 22-point lead.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens was even more pleased with his team’s defense, which was dominant until the Hornets made a late surge to get within six in the final minute.
“We were really locked in tonight,” Stevens said. “We emphasized getting back to a defensive identity today. That was our only focus. We said if we do that, the offense will take care of itself. It makes you feel better when shots are going down like they were tonight, but we were locked in on what we were trying to do.”
Bradley shot 12-for-23 from the field with three 3-pointers to finish two points shy of his career high, set earlier this season against the Dallas Mavericks.
“I feel like we were just moving the ball well,” Bradley said. “Not only that, but we were executing our plays and making shots, and that makes it easier on everybody because you’re not out there thinking, you’re just out there playing. That’s what we did tonight. I think we had like 16 assists in the first half, and that shows, whenever we’re playing that way, we’re playing great basketball.”
The win moved the Celtics to 33-41, in a virtual tie with Brooklyn (32-40). The Indiana Pacers, who play at Boston on Wednesday night, are in 10th place, a half-game back at 32-41. The Hornets (31-42) are 1 1/2 games out of eighth.
“Obviously, we understood we needed this game,” said Boston forward Evan Turner, who finished with 15 points, six rebounds and five assists. “Every game is important now, and we just toughed it out. We came out and played great team ball. Now we just need to string a few games like this together. We got off to a good start, and we maintained it throughout the game.”
The Celtics, clearly playing with more passion than the Hornets, pulled out to quick a 17-6 lead. They led 26-24 after one quarter, 56-44 at halftime, then pushed the lead up to 83-61 late in the third quarter before settling for an 85-69 lead after three.
Charlotte guards Kemba Walker and Mo Williams got hot down the stretch, and the Hornets got as close as 104-100 with 34.7 seconds left, but then the Celtics scored the last six points of the game.
Coach Steve Clifford defended the Hornets’ effort but said that his team didn’t play with focus and purpose.
“In the bigger picture, we just couldn’t guard them,” Clifford said. “Frankly, we just take too many plays off. I told the guys, I like our team. I like the way we work, but I don’t like the way we play every night. You have to be locked in. Every guy that steps on the court has to be locked in. We have to play with intensity, purpose and mistake-free. That first half, it’s not good enough.”
Besides Bradley’s 30 points and Turner’s 15, the Celtics got 14 points from guard Marcus Smart and forward Jae Crowder, 11 from center Kelly Olynyk and 10 from guard Isaiah Thomas.
Walker led the Hornets with 28 points and 12 assists. Mo Williams scored 19, guard Gerald Henderson scored 17, center Al Jefferson had 12, and forward Marvin Williams added 10.
“We’re pretty disappointed, especially because we had to play catch-up throughout the whole game,” Walker said. “That was a huge game for us. It’s definitely disappointing. We’ve got to be better from the start.”