BOSTON (AP) — Zion Williamson scored 28 points and the New Orleans Pelicans held on after blowing most of a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead to beat Boston 115-109 on Monday night in the Celtics’ first game in front of their home fans since before the pandemic.
A masked crowd of 2,298 — officially a sellout at the state-mandated limit of 12% of the TD Garden capacity — cheered (and booed) the Celtics, waved signs and shouted profane taunts at the referees. A video was played welcoming the fans back; at other times they were lectured on social distancing and told not to touch the basketball if it came to them.
“Seeing fans occasionally on the road but not here, I’d say it was pretty emotional for me,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “It signals maybe if we can buckle down and get through it, we can have something close to normal.”
Brandon Ingram had 25 points and nine assists, hitting a long 2-pointer with 34 seconds left after Boston scored 13 straight points to cut a 16-point deficit to 110-107. Jayson Tatum’s layup rimmed out and the Celtics fouled Williamson; as he waited to shoot his free throws, Marcus Smart was given a technical foul and ejected.
“Our guys have to learn what it’s like to close out games,” Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy said. We’ve got to close out games in a consistent manner.”
Josh Hart had 15 points and 15 rebounds for the Pelicans, who won for the fourth time in five games. Williamson has averaged 34.4 points over that span, including 39 and 38 in back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday.
Tatum had 34 points and nine rebounds for Boston, which had won two in a row.
Playing without All-Star Jaylen Brown, who missed the game with a bruised left hip, the Celtics led by two early in the third and still trailed by only five with a minute left in the quarter. But Williamson drove for one layup to finish the third and two more to start the fourth — part of a 14-3 run that gave New Orleans a double-digit lead.
The Pelicans had a 110-94 edge with four minutes left before Boston scored 13 in a row, making it 110-107 on Tatum’s step-back 3 with 51 seconds left.
Massachusetts cleared the state’s professional sports teams to admit up to 12% of capacity as of March 23. The Celtics had been on a four-game road trip; the NHL’s Bruins have already played three games at the Garden, and the Red Sox open their season on Thursday.
“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 it hasn’t felt normal and right,” Stevens said. “Tonight felt normal and right even though we missed more shots than they did.”
Pelicans: Made 50% of their shots, and 51.6% (16 of 31) from 3-point range. They were just 17 of 30 from the free throw line, missing 8 of 15 in the fourth quarter. … Williamson also had eight rebounds, four steals and three assists.
Celtics: Kemba Walker scored 23. … Smart scored 15 points but was 0 for 6 from 3-point range. … Robert Williams scored seven points with 10 rebounds, five assists and blocked three shots.
The Celtics forced a jump ball with about three minutes left in the third. The problem was there was only 0.3 seconds left on the shot clock for the Pelicans, meaning there was no point in either team trying to win the jump.
Boston sent 6-foot-1 guard Payton Pritchard to go up against Ingram. Neither player went for the ball the first time the referee tossed it. The second time, Pritchard tipped it back and Smart, apparently confused about the clock, made a one-handed, half court flip toward the basket; the ball went out of bounds, and over to the Pelicans.
Mo Wagner, Luke Kornet and Evan Fournier all got their first look at the parquet floor since they were acquired at the trade deadline.
Fournier made his Celtics debut after what appears to have been a false positive COVID-19 test landed him in the NBA’s health and safety protocol. The 6-foot-7 swingman said he tested positive on Saturday, but subsequent tests were all negative and he returned after missing two games.
Fournier, who wore No. 94 and bright orange shoes that clashed with the Celtics’ traditional green, was scoreless on 0-for-10 shooting. Wagner scored one point in four minutes and Kornet scored 10 with four rebounds in 13 minutes, making a pair of 3-pointers.
Pelicans: Visit Orlando on Thursday.
Celtics: Host Dallas on Wednesday, the second game of a seven-game homestand.