BOSTON — How do you recover from a demoralizing 12-foul, 3-technical second quarter?
A 14-3 run to open the second half is a good start. On a night where the Celtics looked like they would continue to flounder against a dominant guard and rim-crushing bigs, they found their fire in the second half and beat the Houston Rockets 120-110.
Things went from ugly to bloody when a flailing James Harden elbow-smashed Jonas Jerebko in the face, sending blood pouring out. Harden would receive a flagrant-one after replays showed relatively incidental contact. Jerebko would end up getting four stitches to his upper lip and is expected to play Friday against Orlando.
The Celtics ran away thanks to a crucial stretch from their stars Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford. It started with Horford getting a switch onto Harden and forcing a bad three. Horford then got Harden switched onto him in the post, blowing by him before a tough finish over Montrezl Harrell. When the Celtics came back down, Horford dove between Harden’s legs to recover a loose ball and found Jae Crowder from the ground for a layup and 111-100 lead.
Sometimes, the most exciting moments in basketball come when a great player is left to fight out of his element against an assassin.
The Celtics switched everything on James Harden late, leaving Al Horford on him in iso on the wing for most of the crucial plays in crunch time. Horford came away with a victory in that duel, playing him straight up and forcing some tough, contested shots.
“Al’s the best on our team at using his length, having his hand up and challenging high,” Stevens told me after the win. “We haven’t done that very well as a team. We’ve shown clips of him doing that in Atlanta last year. We’ve shown clips of him doing that earlier this year.m He’s got a low base, he can catch up to the drive and jump off one foot to block the shots. And at the same time, at least make a shooter uncomfortable.”
Horford stayed wide and low, but able to close the space without fouling when Harden pulled up for three. He forced a crucial miss from Harden that helped spark a 13-2 run for the Celtics to take that 111-100 lead with three minutes left.
“You can’t shade [Harden]; you have to play him straight up,” Horford told me after the game. “He’s so quick that you have to stay in front of him and force him to shoot.”
Horford stays back on his heels but keeps his balance. While staying on your toes and leaning forward can minimize reaction time to contest a shot, it leaves you vulnerable to a blow-by when Harden unleashes his dizzying first step acceleration. Al tends to shuffle tight into Harden on his first dribble to throw off his timing and reset his buildup. Horford quickly retreats back to an arm’s length with his weight back, allowing him to stay in stride with Horford in an effort to avoid getting pushed behind Harden’s hip.
He kept Harden in front of him, but even that didn’t always work work. Luckily for him, it was one of the occasional nights where Harden’s deadly pull ups clanked wide.
“I go to that play every night and I just missed them,” Harden said. “Whether it’s Horford guarding me, it doesn’t matter who is guarding me.”
Harden followed up his miss by getting around Crowder and Horford for a layup. But when Horford got the switch onto Harden again, he squared him up, stayed in front of his hip and forced an airball. In isos on a switch, Horford has held ballhandlers to 4-for-13 shooting this year per Synergy.
Ryan Anderson watched those shots go wide from the weak-side, where the stretch four provided space for Harden to try to work on Horford.
“There’s definitely moments when you need to [crash the glass],” Anderson told me. “But we like to spread the court regardless, give that paint an open feel for James so he can kick out also. There are moments when you have to crash, when James takes a step back three or something, when you take advantage of that.”
Anderson had three offensive rebounds in the fourth, including a tip in with 2:16 left on a baseline crash to force a Stevens timeout.
But then Horford ended up re-discovering his right block post game, something that shows up intermittently this season. Sprinkled in with some typical Thomas heroics, the Celtics ran away from Harden and the Rockets.
Isaiah Thomas crossed the 30-point threshold for the 15th time this season. He finished with 38 points, nine assists and five rebounds. He finished the night raising his arms to the crowd’s thundering MVP chants before a perfect assist to Jae Crowder in the corner to ice the game. Thomas scored 13 points with five assists in the fourth quarter yet again, as the king in the fourth dethroned the MVP front-runner James Harden for at least one night.
Crowder was a shot of adrenaline for the Celtics in the second half. His nearly perfect 12-point third quarter regained control for the Celtics and led to his first 20-point, 10-rebound game since December 18, 2015 against the Hawks per Basketball Reference.
“At halftime we told each other the team that complains less is gonna win,” Crowder said. “We knew we had to cut that out."
The Rockets went with a tight eight-man rotation, despite ruling out Eric Gordon just before the tip. The Celtics had some lineup adjustments as well, starting Jonas Jerebko over Amir Johnson to match up with Ryan Anderson and Jaylen Brown in a possible punishment to Marcus Smart for his outburst in Washington Tuesday. Smart would end up playing 31 minutes and make some crucial plays in the offensive post to keep the lead in crunch time.
Smart brought the punches in the second half, something he had practiced the night before. After being sent to the locker room late Tuesday night, a mysterious hole in the wall appeared in the Celtics locker room.
“I know that it wasn't there when I came in. I don't know. I guess I was. I don't remember it, but if there was a hole in the wall, I guess I put it there. I'll take that one,” Smart said after the win over Houston.
The Celtics put a dent in the Rockets Wednesday. Whether their physical late-game defense can continue to take off remains to be seen. Now that they sit just half a game behind the Raptors and 3.5 games out of the top seed, consistency just may make the top in reach.