Kevin mentioned the numbers in the recap, but it bears repeating:
Midway through the third, Boston led 61-60, when a few players got into a minor scuffle along the baseline.
Led by six steals and 13 points by a red-hot Avery Bradley, the Celtics sprinted to a massive 42-14 run over the next 11 minutes, extending their lead to 103-74. Over this stretch, the Celtics had a 166.7 Offensive Rating and 60.9 Defensive Rating, led by 13 points by Avery Bradley and lockdown defense by Marcus Smart.
But let's pick up the game even further back at 9:02 left in the second quarter when the Celtics were down fifteen at 42-27. From that point until 7:16 in the 4th, Boston outscored Houston 76 to 32 for a 44-point swing. In that time frame, the Celtics built a 29-point lead by forcing 18 turnovers, holding James Harden to two free throws, and stifling the Rockets to 36.1% shooting. With Houston either trying to get to the rim or shoot a three, Boston was successful in forcing the Rockets to shoot 10 out of their 36 shots in those 25+ minutes between the arc and the restricted area. That's analytical suicide for GM Daryl Morey.
But those are just the numbers. So much of what the Celtics have been doing over this three game winning streak goes unseen in the box score and it stood out last night in contrast to a Rockets team on the ropes. You could see it in their body language and their play. Boston, on the other hand, played with confidence in each other and their system:
This is seemingly just a little thing, but R.J. Hunter cutting off Trevor Ariza's cut and immediately boxing him out is the kind of defensive awareness that he's been showing since training camp started and ultimately, what's earned him playing time. It's easy to fall in love with his jumper, but if he can't hold his weight on D, he'll never find the floor.
Another small moment, but Smart directing Hunter to crash the board on the free throw is half mind games with Ty Lawson and half leadership from the second year man.
Turnovers are a counting stat, but what I love here isn't necessarily that Avery Bradley gets credited for the steal. It's the audacity of Brad Stevens to put Amir Johnson in full court pressure after a time out. It just sets a tone that the Celtics are going to harass you at every turn.
I hate Dwight Howard so much, but I love watching him direct traffic at the free throw line like a helpless crossing guard in the rain. The disrespect Jared Sullinger shows for his jump shot is just great. The ball denial from Crowder and later Smart stalls the Rockets' offense and forces a contested three.
That ball movement by Boston is beautiful, but I put these two plays up side-by-side not to highlight the Celtics' passing, but to show how good they are at rotating and closing out on shooters. The Rockets over commit, recover slowly, and haphazardly challenge passing lanes. Boston's defense is on a string. They know exactly what they're doing in pick-and-rolls, they move their feet and not their arms, and don't carelessly leave the ground to contest a shot.
After back-to-back blowouts on the road against two Western Conference teams that were supposed to be contending for a title this season, in no uncertain terms Boston revels in their nasty. At halftime, Stevens challenged them to hold Houston to 35 points in the second half; they were close to their coach's goal at 40. Smart says he wants teams "to feel defeated". Bradley described themselves as a "young, hungry team trying to prove themselves." Crowder says it even more bluntly, "I think we play hard and guys don't like that in this league."