BOSTON — The Celtics entered the week focused on improving their playoff position over their final five regular-season games.
They had to dig deep to prevent a short-handed Pelicans team from throwing a big wrinkle in those plans.
Isaiah Thomas scored 32 points to help the Celtics fend off short-handed New Orleans 104-97 on Wednesday night.
Jae Crowder added 14 points, Avery Bradley finished with 13 points and six rebounds, and the Celtics beat the Pelicans for the fourth straight time.
“I’m just going to keep going, keep grinding and being in attack mode,” Thomas said. “That’s what my team needs from me and I’m gonna continue to do that. My guys are just putting me in position to be successful — them and the coaching staff. My job’s pretty easy.”
The fourth quarter featured eight ties before Boston was able to get a key defensive stop in the final minute. The Celtics were then able to close it out at the free-throw line.
Toney Douglas led the Pelicans with 19 points, and Tim Frazier added 18 points and six assists. Six New Orleans players finished in double-figures.
New Orleans played without its five top scorers due to injuries, and had only eight active players.
“We played hard and we competed like crazy,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said. “Just couldn’t seem to make a couple plays at the end that would get us over the hump.”
Boston was playing on three days’ rest, but struggled to get separation — despite 23 turnovers by the Pelicans.
No player in New Orleans’ starting lineup came in averaging more than 7.6 points. Still the Pelicans were aggressive and knocked down nine 3-pointers, including several to help start runs that got them back in to the game.
The Celtics scored eight straight points the start of the third quarter to increase their lead to 16.
But New Orleans didn’t flinch and traded long runs with the Celtics before using an 11-0 spurt to get within three points entering the fourth.
It stayed tight, with the final tie coming at 93 on a jumper by Luke Babbitt with 2:38 remaining.
A minute later, Boston finally broke the stalemate, getting back-to-back baskets by Bradley and Crowder to take a 97-93 lead.
The series that led to Crowder’s basket was costly, though, with Marcus Smart getting hit in the face at some point and having to run to the locker room holding a towel over his right eye. He was diagnosed with a slight laceration above the eye and did not return. He received four stitches, and said he was fine afterward.
Trailing 99-95, New Orleans’ Babbitt had a look at a wide open layup, but it was blocked from behind by Amir Johnson.
Thomas acknowledged that getting the cobwebs out from the recent West Coast trip might have been at play.
“The West Coast trip was tough for us,” he said. “Get back here and little jetlagged still. Time is still a little messed up for us. But as long as we got the win, that’s all that matters.”