Cousins and Horford had battled all night long, shooting three-pointers back and forth, as well as taking bumps and bruises from each other around the paint. But with the game on the line Al Horford blocked his sixth shot of the night. Right out of the hands of DeMarcus Cousins.
The Celts were up three and went on to push their lead to 97-92 in the waning seconds to escape a thriller. Boston progressed to 11-8 on the season, winners of 8 of their last 12. Boston committed turnovers, defensive breakdowns, and many shooting fouls, but Horford’s brilliance in every area of basketball erased most of those mistakes.
After the Celtics, and Brad Stevens in particular, spoke at length about the disappointment that was their $113-million man getting only five field goal attempts Wednesday, a change seemed inevitable Friday night in Boston.
By the time the horn sounded at the end of the first quarter, Horford had buried five of seven shots, already surpassing his Wednesday attempt total. But the Celts had blown their lead on a 13-0 Sacramento run to tie the game at 29.
Horford wasn’t only active on the boards, his rotations defensively onto Kings superstar and Christmas wish of some Celtics fans DeMarcus Cousins helped Horford force four straight misses from Cousins to start the game. That didn’t last either.
It was a mix of turnovers, such as a lazy inbounds pass directly to Ty Lawson and Terry Rozier falling on a drive, that led to the collapse. Additionally, the Cs didn’t fare well when Sacramento decided to bring the ball to the basket to draw free throws.
The Celtics had hit 12 of their first 16 shots but failed to get to the line in the first quarter. After their hot start they missed nine straight shots into the second quarter. Marcus Smart’s three-pointer following his leg-kick offensive foul on the previous shot gave the Celts a 32-31 lead, sparking a back-and-forth, low-scoring second period.
Brad Stevens went 12 deep into his bench by calling upon James Young in the second quarter. He was looking for offense from even the most unlikely sources, as the Kings continued to draw fouls and find points at the free throw line. Boston, meanwhile, had only one free throw attempt from a technical foul until the 18 minute mark, when Jae Crowder scored through a foul to push the Cs up 41-40.
Boston was content finding their points on the perimeter early, but Sacramento attempted to follow suit shortly after. This helped the Cs settle down defensively, as the Kings missed nine threes in 13 attempts in the first half, including one by Cousins at the buzzer.
Horford said the team needed more pace into the second half, but the offense struggled out of the locker room, mustering only three points in the first three minutes of the third.
Their first boost came as Thomas rose up and stole an inbound pass at half court, turned around, and took it to the basket for two free throws before stripping Rudy Gay on the next possession and running for an easy two points. The Cs were back up 53-51 with more tempo to their attack.
The string continued with a steal and score by Avery Bradley, but then the Kings’ attack re-emerged behind a continually aggressive Cousins. After a miss, rebound, and score, he went off for six straight points, pushing Sacramento ahead 68-65. Crowder and Smart twice had turnovers on the 10-2 Kings run.
Sacramento led 72-69 going into the fourth. The Kings struck first with a Rudy Guy jumper, to which Crowder responded with a three at the top of the arc. Terry Rozier stripped Lawson on the next possession, and the teams were deadlocked at 74 as he laid it in on the other end.
Gay’s scoring propelled the Kings through the midst of the fourth, and the Celts needed some another spark. They got it from Horford again. He blocked two shots and scored before exiting the game, leaving the playmaking to Rozier. The sophomore picked up another steal off Cousins, who got his eye hit by a teammate in the chaos. Olynyk put the Celts up 80-76 after Rozier was blocked. Cousins walked to the sideline bleeding and had to leave the game.
On the next possession, Thomas beat Garrett Temple off the dribble for an and-one, sending the Garden into the frenzy and the Cs’ lead to seven points. After Horford’s blocks on Gay and Cauley-Stein, the Kings went on a scoring drought of over three minutes for a 10-0 Celts run.
Cousins returned to break the run with a pair of free throws with just over five minutes to go. The Cs had more offense in them though, with another pair of deep bombs from Crowder and Horford. A pair of Thomas free throws made it 90-85. Cousins tried to will his way into the post through multiple defenders to no avail, and the Celts forced four straight misses through the two-minute mark.
With the Kings pulling within three, it was once again Horford who arrived to save the day, with his season-high fourth three-point make from the wing. The Celts led 93-87, and Cousins grabbed an inbound, was fouled on a three, and hit two to make it a four-point game.
The Kings weren’t going away. Cousins’s overwhelming offensive presence bounced them back every time. After Thomas hit two free throws, he took another three to follow up and drilled it. Boston’s lead was back down to three.
Thomas was stuffed by Cousins, and the ball was in his hands as the clock ticked down to five seconds down three off his make. It was him versus Horford, one last time, and then came the biggest play of the Celtics’ season so far.
Horford, carrying the Celtics all night long, saved the game.