Size of the fight in the dog (Keith P. Smith): All year long the Celtics have seemed off. I wrote just last night that they don't have the fight the last two teams had. I don't pretend to believe they read what I write about them, but tonight they showed something they haven't all year.
Make no mistake about it, Houston is an excellent team. James Harden and company have established themselves among the NBA's elite teams this season. But for most of this game the Celtics had to play a tough opponent in red and one in grey. I try not to call out officials very often. I have officiated high school and low-level college games, and it is incredibly difficult. But sometimes criticism is warranted, and tonight was one of those nights. The list of poor calls is longer than I want to read. One Twitter follower suggested we need a Last 48 Minute Report for this game. It can just be best summed by saying it was bad/awful/horrendous/insert synonym here.
But the Celtics overcame it. They fought back in the third to make it a game. Then they fought some more to push it to a lead. When Houston came back, the Celtics dug in. Then James Harden clocked Jonas Jerebko in the mouth with a backhand. The sight of their teammate spilling blood but getting up ready to fight an MVP candidate seemed to wake the beast. For the first time all season the Celtics showed real grit. They showed that they would take this game and grab a W.
For the first time this season, this looked like the group we have come to love the last two years. And that makes me happy.
Sharing the Crown—The Kings in the Fourth (Lachlan Marr): That second half was something else. As in something else compared to what we’ve seen all season from these Celtics, and certainly something else from what we’ve seen in the last few games.
Even after a pretty blistering third quarter it was clear the Celtics would need to continue to fight for every possession down the stretch and wouldn’t be able to rely on Isaiah’s offensive output alone to save them.
Luckily several Celtics stepped up, particularly Horford, Crowder and Smart, who all put in maximum effort to help out Isaiah in the final frame. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and it always pays to have help, so it was great to see the Celtics sharing the ball and sharing the load as a team.
Isaiah Thomas and James Harden have both been playing the type of basketball that justifies their star status, which is part of the reason the matchups between Boston and Houston have been so interesting to watch this season. Both Houston and Boston have seen their ‘sole star players’ take off this year after lineup changes have been effectively utilised by both teams to highlight the potential of James Harden and Isaiah Thomas, respectively.
This game showed that the difference between these two teams is that the Celtics know they need to work as a team to be at their best, whereas Houston have set themselves up to work best when they rely entirely on Harden.
At least part of the reason the Celtics have struggled recently seems to have been that they have deferred too heavily to Isaiah and have forgotten how to work together. This is an issue obviously compounded by Avery Bradley’s absence, as the Celtics are missing their standard second scoring option, but injuries are something a team has to be able to account for.
This game—and particularly the second half—showed that the Celtics are still one of the best teams in the league at working together and playing hard-nosed, defensive basketball coupled with fastbreak, assist-heavy offense. And after that performance I think Isaiah’s royal family just grew a little—All Hail the Kings in the Fourth.
Right where we want to be (Alex K.): In the Twitter era, it’s very easy to lose sight of the big picture, and the last two nights were the perfect example for the Celtics. After a loss to the Wizards in which their defense looked lost and tempers flared, the pulse in Boston was that this was a team on the way down with no clear answers on how to recover. Fast forward to tonight, and the Celtics defense suddenly looks rejuvenated, and all of a sudden they’re only half a game behind the Raptors for the second seed in the conference. As up and down as this season has felt, the Celtics have been who we thought they were all along—a team that could be a top two or three seed in the East and be a step behind Cleveland. With all that being said, Boston still has its fair share of problems on the defensive end, but that’s okay. Because out of all the pseudo-contenders in the league, no one has the flexibility to make another jump in talent the way Boston does. There’s still a lot of basketball left, and a lot of things are still in play, but looking at where we are this season shouldn’t be a disappointment at all. Breathe, people.
(Bill Sy): Here’s tonight’s shot chart:
Frankly, it looks a lot like your average Rockets night: lots of threes, lots of shots in the restricted area. Before the game, Brad Stevens praised Mike D’Antoni’s system with small-ball lineups, and he used it against him last night. Much of the reasoning behind replacing Marcus Smart and Amir Johnson with Jaylen Brown and Jonas Jerebko was defensive, but it also gave the Celtics more room to space the floor and use Al Horford in the post.
Al Horford rises up for the rim-rocking slam! pic.twitter.com/fBWTTNFeRc— Boston Celtics (@celtics) January 26, 2017
Boston was more active defensively, and that led to seventeen Rockets’ turnovers for 22 points, but it was their aggressiveness in the half court that made a big difference. The Celtics still got up 33 three-pointers (they average 32.6 per game), but they attacked the paint more last night. Whenever Thomas could turn the corner, he was at the rim or kicking it out for wide open 3s. Whenever Horford posted up, the Celtics flooded the lane with cutters and drop off candidates. Pick-and-pops became pick-and-rolls. The Celtics are going to still put up a ton of perimeter shots, but I think the recent losing streak has made them a little hungrier to attack the rim.
Horford x Harden—The Beard vs. The Brain (Jared Weiss): 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.