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Boston Celtics can’t complete comeback, fall to Houston Rockets 115-104

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The Celtics nearly overcame their miserable first half, but the Rockets did just enough to hang on.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Celtics overcame an entirely listless first half to make their Sunday afternoon tilt against the Houston Rockets a bit more interesting than expected. Kyrie Irving scored 24 points, Marcus Smart added 18 and Jaylen Brown played an incredible two-way game in the fourth quarter en route to 15 of his own, but they weren’t able to overcome 89 combined points from James Harden, Eric Gordon and Chris Paul, as the Rockets left TD Garden with a 115-104 win.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: the first half was an absolute disaster for the Celtics on both ends of the court. They entered the break trailing 65-43, and the diagnosis was exceptionally simple: Boston shot 43% from the field while the Rockets shot 56%. Harden powered his way to 23 first-half points, and no Celtic — even Smart — looked capable of getting in his way. This wasn’t a foul call-assisted performance, either; there were times where he looked like he was just going through a pregame layup line. Harden and Gordon alone would match the Celtics in scoring with their combined 43 points.

The Celtics countered with yet another one of the feeble offensive performances that have become commonplace since the All-Star break. They coughed up seven turnovers in the first half — four of which came in the first four minutes of the game, allowing the Rockets to get out to a quick start — and looked less than capable of even simple ball handling. Even more worryingly, their recent three-point shooting woes continued. They made just one of their 13 first-half attempts and threw up a shocking amount of air balls from deep.

The first half also provided a microcosm for the recent struggles of the Celtics’ starting unit. In particular, Morris was once again completely ineffectual, missing both of his field goal attempts and coughing up a pair of turnovers. He’d finish the game scoreless. Off the bench, Brown continued to be one of the team’s few spark plugs, playing a massive role in the fourth-quarter rally. The game served as a strong reminder of the lineup changes this team seems to desperately need.

In the early going, the third quarter looked to be more of the same. The Celtics left Gordon completely undefended behind the arc on the first two defensive possessions of the quarter, leading to a quick pair of triples and a furious Brad Stevens timeout just 55 seconds into the half. While Boston started to find their rhythm from behind the arc, hitting three triples of their own, the defense continued to struggle, allowing the Rockets to keep pace.

As the quarter continued, however, the Celtics started to impose their will a little bit. They rattled off a quick 11-3 run behind a lineup anchored by Horford and Baynes, and — notably — started to make their way to the free throw line. While matchups against Houston tend to favor the Rockets at the free throw line, the Celtics actually drew even in free throw attempts for the day at 29 apiece.

Though the Rockets would play the Celtics to a draw in the third quarter, the Celtics’ renewed energy would carry over to the fourth. Despite Irving resting to open the quarter and both Harden and Paul taking the court, the Celtics cut the Houston lead all the way down to 10 points with six minutes remaining in the game, keyed by frenetic energy from Brown, Rozier and the Boston defense as a whole.

A pivotal exchange happened with five minutes remaining in the quarter. Rozier drew a foul from Nene on a three-point attempt, but missed all three free throw attempts. However, the Celtics corralled the offensive rebound on the third missed attempt and drew Harden’s fifth personal foul of the night. From there, Smart would corral a missed three to cut the Houston lead to single digits (9) for the first time since the first quarter.

With 3:20 to go, however, Harden would break out his signature double-step-back for a monstrous three over good defense from Irving to push the lead back to 12.

Brown would make his best defensive play of the game with 1:45 remaining, drawing an offensive foul on Harden to foul the MVP candidate out of the game and give the Celtics their last grasp at hope. It was just a little bit too late, however; PJ Tucker forced a jump ball on an Irving drive on the next possession and the Rockets secured the tip to put the game on ice.

Next up, the Celtics will continue their Western Conference road trip with a visit to Oakland to face the Golden State Warriors, Tuesday at 10:30 PM EST on TNT.