1. Boston’s seven-game win streak was snapped at Houston. It’s not the end of the world. Losing to a good team on the road is never something to overreact to. That happens to even the best teams in the game.
What is concerning is the way the Celtics lost. Once again, they fell behind by double-digits. Once again, they rallied to make it close. This time around they couldn’t get over the hump. That’s not a sustainable way to play. It takes too much out of the team to constantly be in comeback mode. The lack of energy may have contributed to some of the late-game sloppiness as the game slipped away. No matter what, it’s something Boston needs to figure out going forward.
2. With the Rockets playing an extreme version of small-ball, it was a rare night for the Celtics to have a size advantage. They used that a couple of times, including the game’s first play. There is a lot happening here, but the real goal is to get Daniel Theis a catch in the paint. Mission accomplished:
Later in the game, Marcus Smart drove and found Theis for the easy bucket and the three-point play:
Unfortunately, those were two of Theis’ only three baskets for the game. He did get the line on two other trips, but overall the Celtics didn’t take advantage inside. Enes Kanter was a non-factor. Theis wasn’t able to get enough shots. And despite a 10-point advantage on points in the paint (46-36), it felt like Boston didn’t get enough going inside.
3. Russell Westbrook is still one of the NBA’s feared drivers. He goes to the rim hard and with reckless abandon. But, he’ll get blocked inside more than you think and Boston got him twice. This first one is outstanding one-on-one defense from Jaylen Brown. Brown stays in front of Westbrook and then denies him at the rim:
Smart gets taken out by the screen to start this play, but it’s Smart, so he’s never really out of the play. He comes from out of nowhere to take away the layup:
Boston’s ability to get rim protection in unconventional ways has been a big part of their defensive success this season.
4. Unfortunately, the Celtics defense also had some major lapses in this game. Houston is all about attacking mismatches. Theis on James Harden on the perimeter is a big one:
Theis takes away Harden’s left hand, but overplays him. That opens up the entire middle of the floor. Then no Celtic slides over to help or challenge or anything. Harden’s already hard enough to guard without it being this easy for him.
The fourth quarter, when trying to come from behind, is no place for defensive breakdowns like this:
Smart gets the backscreen from Harden. Brown doesn’t attempt to switch and help, because he’s worried about Harden popping free. By the time Jayson Tatum realizes what’s happening, it’s way too late to bother Westbrook at the rim. This is poor communication at a key point in the game and very atypical from Boston.
5. In the first half, the Celtics were a little three-happy. To start the second, Boston was on the attack. They drove the ball regularly and got the Rockets to four fouls with 8:05 to play in the third period. That’s 2/3 of the quarter that the Celtics should have been able to milk attempts at the free throw line.
How many foul shots did Boston take for the final eight minutes of the third quarter? Two. Grant Williams was fouled on an offensive rebound with 1:42 to play. Two whole freebies in eight minutes worth of time.
You can complain about the style Houston plays and how Harden and Westbrook hunt fouls. What you can’t complain about is the effectiveness of that style. When the Rockets get in the bonus, they make you pay. Boston needed to pay that back.
And it wasn’t a lack of calls either. The Celtics took 10 jumpers over those final eight minutes of the quarter versus forcing the action at the rim. And a lot of those shots were poor decisions like this one:
No one touches the ball but Smart and he takes a turnaround fallaway jumper with 14 seconds left on the shot-clock. That’s bad offense.
6. The Celtics went to a decent amount of zone in this game. Part of that was it was the only way Enes Kanter could be on the floor. With Houston playing extreme five-out offense, there is no one for Kanter to guard. Brad Stevens went to both a traditional zone early in the fourth quarter and the Rockets went 0-for-3 with a turnover. Danuel House Jr. did grab an offensive rebound, which got him to the line during that time as well.
That stint was part of a short night for Kanter, as this just wasn’t the matchup for him. Theis was in there for nearly 30 minutes, as his mobility allows him to cover and contest on the perimeter. However, even when Theis was in, Boston mixed in some pseudo-zone. Theis would stay down on the block and cover whoever was closest to the basket, while the other four players switched around him. That’s tough against Houston, because of Harden and Westbrook’s drive and kick ability, but it’s something Stevens has gone to a handful of times in recent weeks.
7. Unlike in the third quarter, Boston did force the issue to get to the line in the fourth quarter. It was an off night for Jayson Tatum shooting-wise, as he went just 5-of-15 from the field. He did get to the line nine times however, including six attempts in the fourth quarter. Multiple times, Tatum put his head down and drew fouls going to the basket. It’s good to see that he has grown to that point and is starting to get that respect from the officials.
8. Jaylen Brown is up to a career-high 46.4% on corner threes. It feels like this shot has become almost automatic for him:
9. Gordon Hayward plays with great “personal pace”. He’s more explosive and quicker than you think, but he’s never in a hurry. He gets to where he wants and then controls his speed based on the situation. Here, Hayward blows by Harden with speed, but then slows down on the drive and hangs to get the layup:
10. As it was, that above bucket from Hayward, and two free throws the next trip, were the only Boston scores during a crucial fourth quarter stretch. The Celtics had cut the Rockets lead to just two-points at 96-94. From there, Houston went on a 17-4 run (with Hayward having the only four points) to put the game away over a 3:32 stretch. By the time Stevens emptied the bench with 2:08 to play, Boston had missed three layups and committed three turnovers during Houston’s run and the game was over.
This was the second straight late-game collapse for the Celtics. Against the Thunder on Sunday afternoon, Boston was able to hang on and get the win. Against Houston, who is a rung above Oklahoma City, the Celtics weren’t able to overcome their sloppiness.
The Celtics have a chance to close the season’s “first half” on a high note with a home game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday. It’s one of only two games on the NBA schedule the night before the All-Star break begins. Lots of eyes will be on Boston and it’s a good chance to hit vacation on a high note.