After a wildly successful 3-1 road trip against Western Conference opponents, the Boston Celtics returned home to stiff competition, taking the court at TD Garden against the Houston Rockets. The divisive Rockets — now playing extra small — frustrated Boston in their first match-up, a 116-105 defeat in Houston in February. Despite a miraculous shot from Jaylen Brown, however, revenge wasn’t in the cards for the Celtics tonight. They fell to Houston in an overtime thriller — one of the best games of the entire NBA season thus far — 111-110.
Though he struggled to connect on the offensive end early in the night, Jayson Tatum continued his recent ascension with 32 points, 10 of which came at the free throw line. Marcus Smart contributed 26 points, including five threes, and Jaylen Brown added 22. It just wasn’t quite enough to overcome a powerhouse performance from Russell Westbrook, who scored 41 points and washed away a forgettable performance from teammate and MVP candidate James Harden (21 points, 7-of-24 shooting).
Despite the two teams’ renown on the offensive end of the floor, the opening frame was dominated by defense. The two foes combined to shoot just 4-of-18 from behind the three-point arc in the first quarter, including an awkward pair of consecutive misses by Harden and Gordon in the latter half of the quarter and a Gordon airball shortly thereafter.
The Houston defense keyed in on Tatum early, with positive results, holding the 21-year-old to 0-for-4 shooting in the opening frame — though he did connect on four free throws. While he struggled with shot-making, though, the Celtics’ depth shined through, with Smart, Brown and Hayward picking up the offensive slack. The trio combined for 19 of Boston’s 28 first quarter points, and the Celtics would lead by 7 heading into the second quarter.
The Celtics kept the pressure on in the second quarter, pushing ahead to a 16-point lead four minutes into the frame. Brown took on a starring role, dueling Westbrook in the first half. Perhaps his most impressive play was not a made basket, however, but a pass. He picked the pocket of a Houston ball-handler at mid-court, raced ahead in transition, and delivered a slick behind-the-back dime to Grant Williams for a layup.
While Brown took a starring role in the first half, Tatum’s struggles proved to be short-lived as well. He picked up two quick buckets to open the second quarter, including a filthy pull-up triple from the top of the key, to force an early Rockets time-out. Despite shooting just 3-of-10 from the field, Tatum still recorded 12 points in the half.
In the closing minutes of the quarter, Houston would prove just how combustible their offense can be. They ripped out a quick 11-2 run to close Boston’s lead back within single digits. However, with three minutes left to play, Westbrook picked up a costly flagrant foul after undercutting a Smart jumper. Smart would connect on his subsequent free throws and Hayward would nail a three-pointer, and the Houston run was thoroughly broken. The Celtics would enter the break leading by 11.
The second half opened with a Houston charge, shooting 4-of-5 from the field (including three triples) and cutting the Celtics’ lead to just six, prompting a Brad Stevens timeout. The break would prove ineffectual — just moments later, a Harden three-pointer would bring Houston their first lead of the night, 66-64 with a little more than five minutes to play in the third quarter. The two teams continued to trade blows for the rest of the frame, but Houston would enter the fourth quarter with a three-point advantage, 81-78. The Rockets outscored the Celtics 36-22 in the quarter.
The early going of the fourth quarter was a comedy of errors, with the Celtics making boneheaded mistakes and Houston refusing to capitalize. The Rockets saw multiple second-chance opportunities in the early minutes of the quarter, but were unable to capitalize on them. Those missed opportunities would quickly catch up to them, as Tatum canned a three-pointer and converted on a layup to tie the game at 87 apiece with just under eight minutes to play in regulation.
Out of the timeout, Houston held Boston at arm’s length, with the Celtics failing to capitalize on a few golden opportunities to take the lead — including a possession that featured two offensive rebounds, but three missed shots. Smart would cut the Houston lead back down to just one point with a pull-up triple, but the Rockets would quickly reestablish a five-point advantage with under five minutes left to play.
The Celtics weren’t quite done yet, battling back with a Tatum dunk and a slick Smart layup to pull back within one point once again. With just under three minutes to play, Tucker snagged an improbable offensive rebound under the basket, leading to a Mike D’Antoni timeout with four seconds left on the clock. Four seconds would be all the Rockets needed: Covington would can a triple out of the ATO to push the Rockets ahead by four.
The dagger would come moments later, as Westbrook — who dominated the proceedings for nearly the entire night — slammed home a dunk and pushed Houston’s lead to six. Despite a near-miraculous pull-up triple from Smart, the Celtics’ chances of completing the comeback seemed to be on life support.
And that’s when Jaylen Brown happened.
In the closing seconds of the game, with the Rockets up three, Tucker sent Tatum to the foul line. After missing the first free throw, Tatum intentionally missed the second, and Smart corralled the offensive rebound. The ball found its way to Brown behind the three-point arc, and he delivered with one of the single biggest shots of the Celtics’ season — a buzzer-beating triple to send the game to overtime.
The excitement wasn’t done just yet, as the two teams refused to yield an inch in five minutes of bonus basketball. As with much of the evening, they traded blows like a pair of heavyweight boxers, with the Celtics snagged just a one-point lead with a minute left to play after Daniel Theis erased a Harden layup attempt. Unfortunately, the lead wasn’t meant to be. A pair of Harden free throws — just his second and third of the night — put the Rockets ahead, and Boston couldn’t connect on their final possession.
Next up, the Celtics will host the struggling Brooklyn Nets at TD Garden this coming Tuesday, at 7:30 PM EST on NBC Sports Boston.