Celtics can’t overcome absences again, nine-game winning streak snapped in loss to Magic

Time after time this season, the Celtics have overcome key absences to earn gutsy victories. But they didn’t have enough magic in the tank Monday night in Orlando.

The Celtics – already thin without three of their regulars – lost Jayson Tatum for an important stretch in the third quarter and still nearly pulled off another impressive road comeback. But two double-digit deficits were ultimately too much for the Celtics to overcome in a 113-98 loss to the young, upstart Orlando Magic, which snapped their nine-game winning streak.

Tatum and Jaylen Brown each scored 26 points for the Celtics, who will probably be happy not to see the Magic anymore this season. They lost the season series by falling in three of their four meetings, which included being swept in a two-game home series in Boston last month.

“I just know every game, you have to continue to do those things (to win), and you’re going to run into teams and I think it says more about Orlando,” Celtics interim head coach Joe Mazzulla told reporters. “I thought the way they played tonight, they were physical, they had an edge about them.”

The C’s – without starters Marcus Smart and Robert Williams as well as sixth man Malcolm Brogdon – had dug out of a 14-point hole in the first half after a rough start and were in good position midway through the third quarter when the trajectory of the game changed with a strange injury to Tatum.

Tatum drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing – which gave the Celtics a 68-66 lead – and then started wincing and holding his right side as he jogged back on defense. He immediately gave a foul and went straight to the locker room to get some treatment, and after the game told reporters it felt like a cramp and that he should be fine.

But the Magic took full advantage of the Celtics star’s absence as they reeled off a 20-5 run, capped by Paolo Banchero’s dunk in transition as they took full control of the undermanned C’s. When Tatum returned with 2:04 remaining in the third, the C’s trailed by 13 and couldn’t climb that hill again despite another admirable effort from their bench unit.

“I think our rim reads, I think their defense was really good protecting the rim and we got good penetration on the first drive, we just didn’t make the right play at the rim every single time and that kind of forced us into some turnovers,” Mazzulla said of that Magic run.

Payton Pritchard, two days after his massive performance in the Celtics’ win over the Raptors, stepped in again and impressed, Sam Hauser returned to the rotation and hit some big shots, and even Mfiondu Kabengele was given his first minutes since November to start the fourth quarter as the Celtics found a spark.

After trailing by 10 early in the fourth, the C’s responded as Hauser scored five consecutive points, including a 3-pointer, and trimmed their deficit to three after Derrick White’s three-point play. Tatum hit a 3 with 6:20 to go that made it a two-point game, but they didn’t get over the hump. The Magic replied with a 10-0 run that put the game away as the Celtics gave away too many possessions down the stretch. They finished with 18 turnovers, and they were outscored 54-32 in the paint.

Other takeaways and notes from Monday’s loss:

– Mazzulla, typically reluctant to call timeouts, has joked that they don’t always work. But he called one that sparked a game-changing run in the second quarter.

The Celtics were being shredded in the paint and in transition against the more athletic and energetic Magic and fell behind 43-29 when Mazzulla called timeout and it was exactly what they needed. The C’s ripped off a 16-1 run as they took their first lead of the night at 45-44. Horford’s football pass to Tatum, who muscled in an impressive layup, capped the run. The Magic called a timeout and Horford mockingly threw up a “T” sign with his hands to signal it for them as the C’s found their juice.

– Since his hot October and November, Hauser’s struggles have been noticeable, his minutes have declined and he even fell out of the rotation altogether against the Warriors and Raptors. But his strong performance could be the most encouraging takeaway from Monday’s loss.

Hauser scored 13 points on three 3-pointers in 16 minutes off the bench, which also included some hustle plays and encouraging defense. It was a much-needed effort for the second-year role player who’s trying to regain his confidence and spot in the rotation after he had become a key bench player at the beginning of the year.

“I thought he competed on the defensive end, I thought he moved without the basketball,” Mazzulla told reporters. “He looked confident shooting it.

“His defensive positioning was better tonight. I thought his point of contact was more physical and his individual defense. I thought he moved the ball well, so I thought he looked good.”

– The Magic got a boost of energy thanks to the long-awaited return of Jonathan Isaac, who had last played in a game on Aug. 2, 2020, after suffering a serious knee injury. He scored 10 points in 10 minutes in his return.

– Smart is day to day with the right ankle sprain he suffered Saturday against the Raptors, while Brogdon is not with the team due to personal reasons. Williams, who left Saturday’s game with a hyperextension in his left knee, was initially listed as questionable Monday but ultimately ruled out. He could return Tuesday against the Heat with Horford likely to sit on the second night of a back to back.