1. The Celtics struggled once again to contain James Harden. This isn’t uncommon, as every team has challenges with stopping Harden. But at times Boston made it far too easy for Harden to score, especially at the rim. A lot of this came early on, when Harden would draw Aron Baynes or Marcus Morris on a switch and take them right to the hoop. This play is particularly concerning though, because this one involves Marcus Smart and Al Horford, who are the two best defenders on the Celtics. The screen is never really set, yet Smart and Horford make a very low-resistance switch and Harden gets to the hoop unencumbered:
2. The debate continues to rage if Jaylen Brown should start or not. One thing to remember: Brown himself said he felt out of sorts in the starting five and didn’t know when to shoot the ball. One other thing to remember: If Brad Stevens starts Brown, the Celtics lose his energy off the bench. He’s been a game changer for the Celtics at time in that role. Only Stevens knows the answer to this, and he may not even be sure himself.
3. Boston was very sloppy early in this game. They coughed the ball up six times in the first quarter. And it wasn’t because the Rockets were playing some incredible pressure defense. It was just sloppy passing and ball handling by the Celtics. That’s a big part of what caused the first half deficit to grow so large.
4. One way Stevens tries to settle the team down is by going to Horford or Smart in the post. It generally results in something good. Either they score themselves, or they find cutters or shooters for good looks. It’s something Boston shouldn’t hold off on using until they are struggling.
5. While many prefer to parse through what Kyrie Irving says and doesn’t say off the court for some greater understanding of his overall happiness, sometimes his play on the court says a lot more. Whatever he does here while closing out on Chris Paul isn’t NBA-level defense. This directly created an open look for Eric Gordon. Making it worse, this was when the Celtics should have come out of the half ready to make a run.
6. We talked about Boston going to the post earlier and how it creates good stuff for the Celtics offense off cuts and jumpers. The other thing it creates is free throws, which are a rare commodity for Boston. In the third quarter, as they got back in the game, the Celtics went 13-of-15 from the charity stripe. And several of those came via playing through Horford and Smart in the post. For a team that takes just 19 free throws a game, getting 15 in one quarter is a monumental accomplishment.
7. We’ve hit the “show Brown some more love!” section of the takeaways. On this play, Brown looks positively Harden-like. He puts his head down, drives to the rim, absorbs the contact and gets the bucket. These are the types of exciting plays Brown made all game.
8. On the other end, Brown defended Harden about as well as you can for portions of the afternoon. On this play in the fourth quarter, Brown harassed Harden into nearly turning the ball over. Then he did a good job of closing on the jump shot, after Harden had backed it out to almost halfcourt:
9. The Celtics nearly completed the miracle comeback, but an old bugaboo came back late in the game: controlling the glass. Houston grabbed four offensive rebounds late in the game, two each by P.J. Tucker and Nene. Each one was a killer, as they came after Boston had come up with a big initial stop. Nothing kills a comeback like not finishing a defensive possession by rebounding the ball.
10. Now the team heads west for a road trip that seems absolutely massive for how the rest of this season will play out. The Celtics are going to make the playoffs, despite some panic that they might not even make it. They have an 8.5 game lead on the ninth place team in the East. It would be a historic collapse to miss the postseason, and that’s not happening.
Often road trips take a team out of their element and all distractions are removed. It’s one of the few times in the NBA season that things can just be about basketball. The optimistic view is that maybe Boston uses this trip to re-connect and figure things out. The pessimistic view is that losses will pile up and the season will be all but officially dead by the time the team returns home.
The Celtics did some positive stuff in their recent stretch of games, despite the results not being there. You might have to squint to see them, but they are there. Here’s to hoping they can take this time to rally around one another and save a season that was once filled with so much optimism and hope.