With 6:50 left in the third quarter on Sunday night, the Boston Celtics held an 83-66 lead. They were holding the Houston Rockets at bay despite several comeback attempts. But by the 3:56 mark in the third, Houston was on an 11-0 with the margin cut to just six points.
After a solid first half, the Celtics took their foot off the gas and allowed the Rockets to find some momentum. Jayson Tatum couldn’t find a rhythm, Sam Hauser was struggling from deep, and Jaylen Brown, despite ending with a triple-double, was reeling as well.
Enter Luke Kornet.
At the 3:26 mark, right after Jae’Sean Tate scored points 10 and 11 of the Rockets’ run, Payton Pritchard front-rimmed a three. Kornet soared in for the rebound, outdueling Alperen Sengun. He then dribbled out to the three-point line and drew a foul on Sengun in the process.
Nothing came of the ensuing Celtics possession, but that was just the spark before the flame.
Aaron Holiday drove to the rim on the next Houston possession and threw a lob to Amen Thompson. But Kornet got in the way, deflecting the ball to Derrick White. He sprinted down the floor, outran everyone on the Rockets, and threw down a dunk in transition.
It was just two points. It was still an 11-2 run for the Rockets. But it caused Ime Udoka to call a timeout.
“Oshae, Luke, Payton, [and] Sam. That unit, to me, that’s why you put so much stock into them. That’s why you believe in them,” said head coach Joe Mazzulla. “They have to help you win games like that. When it’s a long year, there are going to be nights when you’re not at your best. But those guys brought it. And so, that’s big-time.”
Boston turned things around to wrap up the third, but they found themselves on the wrong end of another Houston surge as the fourth got underway.
The Celtics were up by 93-82 with 11:00 left in the game, but an 8-0 Rockets run quickly cut the lead to 93-90 by the 9:13 mark.
With 8:42 to go (and the score still stuck at 93-90), the NBC Sports Boston broadcast began speculating who the Celtics might go to for a spark. Dalano Banton and Svi Mykhailiuk were brought up as potential options. It was clear that something was off, and Boston needed a change.
Mazzulla subbed Kornet back into the game.
After one empty possession for each team, Nate Williams found himself with a lane to the hoop and a chance to bring the Rockets within one. Kornet was waiting in the paint, jumped in turn with Williams, and sent his shot packing. He collected the rebound, and Mazzulla called a timeout.
Porzingis nailed a turnaround jumper after the break, giving the Celtics a five-point cushion, but Houston wasn’t done. Dillon Brooks got an off-ball screen and managed to find a path to the hoop with Tatum on his hip.
Kornet shifted over from his assignment and blocked the shot, grabbing the board immediately after. He swung the ball up the floor to Tatum, who kicked it to Hauser, who found Pritchard for a corner three.
Celtics up by eight.
Two chances for the Rockets to get over the hump, two run-stopping sequences by Kornet.
He finished the game with eight points, nine rebounds (including five on the offensive end), one assist, one steal, and three blocks while shooting a perfect 4-of-4 from the field.
With Al Horford sidelined, the backup big man stepped up, and without his timely contributions, the Celtics may have lost back-to-back games for just the second time this season.