The Houston Rockets have been flying high on the back of star player James Harden’s phenomenal form so far this season. The Celtics, on the other hand, have been scraping by, mostly on the back of their own star guard, Isaiah Thomas. So with two aggressive guards given the green light by their respective coaches, this matchup was always likely to be an epic battle of the backcourts.
Yet this game would also prove to be a showdown of the stretch forwards, with Jerebko starting in place of Amir Johnson in an adjustment that was likely a direct reaction to the Rockets’ three-point-heavy offense.
The Rockets controlled the tip, and James Harden quickly sauntered down the lane, only to end up on the receiving end of a big-time block from Al Horford, who obviously wanted to establish a strong defensive tone early.
In an ominous opening attempt, Avery Bradley completely airballed his first shot from three as both teams struggled to score in the first few minutes of the game. It took a while for both teams to get going, but once they did the Rockets quickly took advantage, going up double digits in the first quarter.
Harden continued to dominate the Rockets’ offense and breeze by the Celtics’ defense for some easy attempts early on. Eventually Marcus Smart was called in to guard ‘The Beard’ after Harden scored 8 points in as many minutes. Harden would remain scoreless for the rest of the quarter, but a lacklustre defensive effort overall left the Celtics trailing by 9 at the end of the first frame as the Rockets led the Celtics 26-17.
Jaylen Brown started the second and made an immediate impact, knocking down a three and then running to the rim for a quick transition bucket almost immediately after. It was good to see Boston’s rookie playing with more aggression and presence after struggling to contribute in recent games. In fact, Boston’s bench production was up across the board in the first half, with Rozier, Smart, Olynyk and Brown all contributing.
The strong team play would help Boston to get back into the game, and Coach Brad threw virtually everyone he could at James Harden, cycling through Bradley, Smart and Brown to varying degrees of success. Yet nothing seemed to work as Harden forced his way to the line and converted his free throws with unerring accuracy. A healthy fear of the beard may have proved prudent, as he went for 21 points in the first half, scoring on all 11 of his attempts from the charity stripe.
The Celtics on the other hand were only given two shooting fouls in the entire first half, both of them and-one attempts. However, while some in Celtics Nation may have screamed ‘foul play’, the foul discrepancy may have been at least in part due to the Celtics’ heavy reliance on the long ball, as they chucked up 18 shots from three-point range. Plus, despite regularly going small in the first half, the Celtics only scored on five of their long-range attempts.
Whether due to uneven officiating, careless defending or a lack of aggression on the offensive end of the floor, by the close of the half the Celtics were trailing the Rockets by 10 with the scores at 58-48.
A cold shooting streak from Houston would allow the Celtics to chip away at the Rockets’ lead, as the third quarter saw the Celtics step up the defensive intensity and deny the Rockets the same easy opportunities they frequently found in the first half. The strong effort paid off as the Rockets offense stalled, and back-to-back three-pointers from Boston’s starting frontcourt of Jerebko and Horford finally gave the Celtics a slender lead.
Harden was all but shut down in the third period, as the Celtics continually double-teamed the star shooting guard in an intimidating display that seemed to make ‘The Beard’ feel the fear. Boston was also aided by what seemed to be more even-handed officiating as they battled their way to the line and converted on their free-throw opportunities.
The Celtics would enter the fourth quarter with a 6-point lead after outscoring the Rockets 35 to 19 in the third. Entering the final frame, the score and indeed the entire tone of the game had shifted in the Celtics’ favour as they led 83-77.
The combined efforts of Thomas and Horford helped Boston recapture the lead, but there were strong efforts all around, as everyone who saw minutes for the Celtics managed to contribute in some way.
After calling it one way and then calling it the other the officials finally decided to let both teams play in the final quarter. The uninterrupted play seemed to work for the Celtics, who maintained their lead and continued to see contributions from up and down their roster.
Naturally the Rockets deferred to Harden at every opportunity, whereas the Celtics tried to move the ball and keep everyone involved. The back-and-forth play would continue down the stretch as the teams traded buckets, and Houston searched for stops in order to retake the lead as the final buzzer approached.
As it turned out, the Rockets didn’t have to try too hard, as the Celtics nearly gifted the game to the home team after some inattentive play allowed Houston to take the lead with only minutes left in the game. This kind of fourth-quarter communication breakdown has become par for the course for the team in green, as late-game turnovers and poor defensive rotations have already cost them some close games.
If they’d been able to make up for their mistakes by executing on the offensive end of the court, then they might have still gotten out of Texas with the win. Some tough luck coupled with a lack of finishing meant the Celtics were fighting to get the win right down to the final buzzer.
Like the old parable about a nail causing the downfall of a kingdom, an untied shoelace caused a broken play in the final minutes that could very well have cost the Celtics the win. A close call on a three-pointer from Bradley that was eventually ruled as a long two also didn’t help the Celtics’ cause.
An offensive foul called on James Harden allowed the Celtics to make the last seconds of the game interesting, as Smart converted on a flagrant one and the Celtics kept possession, trailing by a single point. But even with two attempts from close to the bucket from Boston’s best clutch performers, one from IT and one from Al Horford, the Celtics couldn’t convert, missing two easy layup attempts with the game on the line. With disappointment for the Celtics as the buzzer sounded, it was obvious that it shouldn’t have come down to the final possession, as there were plenty of factors that could be blamed for the Celtics loss.
It’s pretty clear a lost shoe didn’t lose the game, nor did questionable calls. Rather, a lack of communication and execution meant the Celtics became just another victim of the Beard’s campaign of fear. The Celtics lose in Houston by a single point, 107-106.