Al Horford hits game-winner in closing seconds to finish comeback from 26-point hole as Celtics shock Rockets, 99-98

Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart spark incredible comeback in closing seconds

Kyrie Irving and the Celtics pulled off the biggest comeback of them all Thursday night. (Boston Celtics)

BOSTON — In a season of incredible comebacks, the Celtics pulled off the best one of all.

Al Horford hit the game-winning shot with 3.7 seconds left and the Celtics completed a comeback from a 26-point second-half hole with a stunning 99-98 win over the Rockets at TD Garden. It was Boston’s only lead of the night.

MVP candidate James Harden had 34 points and Eric Gordon added 24 as the Rockets were on the verge of holding off the Celtics. The Rockets led the entire game but the Celtics had several chances in the final three minutes to take the lead. The Celtics (29-10), who were led by Kyrie Irving’s 26 points, finally took advantage in the final 10 seconds.

Jayson Tatum’s dunk with 7.3 seconds left made it a one-point game again. Then Marcus Smart drew an offensive foul on Harden on the inbounds. Horford hit a baseline half-hook with 3.7 seconds left to give Boston its first lead of the game, 99-98.

“Coach Stevens was the one from the sidelines. (The play) was supposed to eventually get to Kyrie (Irving) and then Coach told me to go and take it and make a play,” Horford said.

Smart drew another offensive foul on Harden as the Rockets tried to inbound the ball, and Harden said after the game he couldn’t believe the game was staffed with just two officials as one official came up with a back injury before tip-off.

“First of all, how do you only have two officials on a national TV game,” Harden said. “That is the first question. A lot of grabbing, a lot of holding. How else am I supposed to get open? A guy has two arms wrapped around my whole body.”

Smart’s layup drew the Celtics within a point with 13.5 seconds left. But Harden, who made all 15 free throw attempts, hit his final two with 11.6 seconds remaining to put Houston up, 98-95.

Tatum blocked a Harden three and Marcus Smart missed a go-ahead three in the final minute. Tatum also grabbed a loose ball but the Celtics couldn’t convert. Facing a 26-point third quarter hole, the Celtics went on an incredible 54-29 surge to close it to one point late.

“We’ve had some tough losses here at home recently and our crowd tonight was unbelievable and at least for me what kept driving me was that we have to do this for our fans, we just got to push through it,” Horford added. “They were so into it, they’re supporting us, their energy was unbelievable, it was about as loud as I’ve seen our arena get. I just feel like that really drove us because you’re looking going into halftime and you can make excuses; the back to back, you’re tired. You just think about putting on a good show for the fans and see what we do, ourselves, as a group. I’m just proud that we were able to rally together and it was a good win for us.”

For a full boxscore, click here.

Playing their third game in four days and their seventh in 11, the Celtics opened the game as ice cold as the weather outside.

Facing a Rockets team without the services of Chris Paul and top reserves Clint Capela and Luc Mbah A Moute, Boston missed its first five shots while Houston came in up tempo from the opening tip. An Eric Gordon three began a 12-0 spurt to begin the contest.

Without Jaylen Brown and Semi Ojeleye and with Marcus Morris’ minutes limited, the Celtics were at a significant size disadvantage from the start.

The Rockets drove to the basket at will and the Celtics were caught on bad switches several times in the opening quarter.

The Celtics committed seven turnovers in the opening eight minutes, as Houston built a 27-10 lead. With Kyrie Irving picking up two quick turnovers and the Rockets exploited the size advantage. Brad Stevens tried desperately to jolt the Celtics, turning to a three-guard lineup that featured Shane Larkin, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier, with Daniel Theis and Marcus Morris the lone bigs. That lineup played out the final four minutes of the first quarter as Irving and Al Horford sat the bench.

Former Celtic Gerald Green received a warm welcome from Al Horford and Marcus Smart in warmups and a nice reception from the Garden fans when he checked in for Trevor Ariza with 4:39 left in the first quarter.

The Celtics finished their disastrous first quarter making just five of 19 shots from the field while committing eight turnovers. Houston led 32-12 after 12 minutes.

The Celtics opened by scoring the first three points of the second quarter but it was all downhill from there as the Rockets scored the next nine to open a 41-15 lead. Harden and the Rockets kept the foot on the gas from there. Harden even took advantage of rookie Jabari Bird, devastating him with a stunning crossover on a drive to the basket that result in a pair of free throws.

Harden finished the first half with 17 points and seven assists, helping the Rockets to a 62-38 lead. Houston was 10-for-24 from 3-point territory in the opening half.

Down 24, Stevens went to Abdel Nader to start the second half, replacing Aron Baynes. It didn’t do much, as Harden’s third three made it 67-42 with nine minutes left in the third.

The Celtics started showing life midway through the third. Jayson Tatum was fouled shooting a three from the right wing. He made all three free throws to cut Houston’s lead to 18, 71-53, with 4:43 left in the quarter. Irving then drilled a pair of free throws with 3:50 left and the deficit was a manageable 16, 71-55. Marcus Morris drained a three with 3:23 left and Boston was within 13, 71-58.

Irving’s steal and Marcus Smart’s subsequent layup at the 3:09 mark made it 71-60, capping Boston’s 12-0 run. Harden finally answered with a pair of free throws to end the Boston run.

The game was officiated by only two referees, and as the game wore on, it showed. Mark Lindsay was assigned to the game but could not work due to a sore back, leaving Tony Brothers and Gediminas Petraitis to officiate.

With the Celtics within nine, 73-64, and the shot clock winding down, Harden drove to the basket and was blocked by Aron Baynes. But a foul was called. Stevens exploded off the bench and picked up a technical foul. Morris was also given a tech by Petraitis. Harden hit the two techs and the two additional free throws to make it 77-64.

The Celtics held the Rockets without a field goal for the final 5:43 of the third quarter and trailed by just nine, 78-69.

Terry Rozier drained a three with 10:35 left and the Celtics were within seven, 81-74. Morris hit a three with 8:40 left and it was a six-point game, 83-77.

Rozier’s breakaway dunk made it, 85-81. Then, with the Rockets up, 87-81, Horford hit a fallaway to make it 87-83. Rozier’s three-point play with 5:16 left cut the lead to one, 87-86. Harden’s three with 4:56 left made it 90-86. Irving hit one of two free throws to make it 92-91 Rockets with 3:08 left.

Harden missed a three and the Celtics rebounded and called timeout. A Horford turnover and a Harden three as the shot clock expired with 2:03 left put the Rockets up, 95-91. Irving returned fire with a basket to make it 95-93.