BOSTON – Well, that was intense.
For the second time in six days, we got a potential NBA Finals matchup between the Celtics and a Western Conference star-driven power. And for the second time in a week, the Celtics suffered a heartbreaking one-possession loss because they couldn’t get a last-second shot to fall and because they couldn’t close out when they had the chance.
Saturday night’s 111-110 overtime loss to the Houston Rockets was a classic that had an improbable turns, emotional highs and gut-wrenching lows, all of which should better prepare the Celtics once the playoffs start in just under two months.
The Celtics lost a 17-point first-half lead in a game where it appeared the Rockets were going to get blown out like the Lakers did earlier in the winter at TD Garden. But instead of wilting under the intensity of the playoff-like crowd, the Rockets found a way to hang tough but being more physical with the Celtics. The rebounds were actually in favor of the Celtics but Saturday came down to big moments and in those big moments, the Rockets were more physical and simply better.
“We have to become a little better at holding our ground,” said Jaylen Brown, who scored 22 in the loss.
“The physicality was – it really affected us in both these games against Houston, like it really affected us,” Brad Stevens said. “We have to become a little bit better holding our ground. Part of that is just the boot strength and part of it is picking your spots a little bit better, getting angles a little bit better. And then I think the other thing that you know is always a great reminder is that possession is never over until you have the ball. And they killed us on the glass in the third and fourth quarters. From the corners and slashing and crashing. Those were big huge plays. Both teams played hard both teams made a lot of those plays I think they’ve made a few more. I think the right team won. I think that they were better than us tonight, not by much but at least by one.
“I mean, they do a good job. They’re smaller so they got to be physical. And they got some strong physical guys, so they did a good job of that. We just had to be a little tighter with the ball maybe a little better on that end to get what we want.”
The Rockets played harder in the paint in the second half after facing a 56-45 deficit. They outscored the Celtics 36-22 in the third quarter and held Boston to 48 points in the third and fourth quarters combined. The had the chance to win the game, up 104-101 before Jaylen Brown hit his miracle three to force overtime.
“It’s a game of chess out there,” Brown said. “For the most part, we did a tremendous job guarding. We just lost the game on the offensive glass. We lost the game in transition We’ve just got to clean up little things, and as we inch toward the playoffs, we will. We’ll be alright.
“The intensity was high. It was very high, and we still have another level we can go to. Tonight, we fell short. It’s another good learning lesson. Another great game to build off of and learn. Our resiliency is key. I’m excited about this team.”
Brown and the Celtics have reason to be excited if Kemba Walker returns to full strength. They have as many scoring options in their starting lineup as any NBA Finals contender in either conference.
The problem Saturday is that even Jayson Tatum has a gas tank, and eventually it can hit empty if Brad Stevens needs to put the foot on the pedal to get points out of his offense.
When Tatum intentionally missed his second free throw and Brown collected it and drained a straightaway three as regulation expired, TD Garden erupted as if they had won a playoff game. Unfortunately, the shot only tied the game and the Celtics went cold and scoreless over the final 2:38 of overtime and Houston barely beat that, with James Harden’s two free throws with 23 seconds remaining proving the difference.
Harden was held to just 21 points and played through a sprained wrist suffered when he fell to the court. Problem was, Westbrook dominated from the start and finished with 41.
“I think we guarded him well,” Brown said. “I think we accepted the challenge. We just didn’t do a good enough job on Westbrook. We had a lot of attention on James Harden and forgot about the other MVP over there. He came out and asserted himself early and he took over and dominated the game.”
James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, with a little Marcus Smart peppered in. That was the essence of the drama Saturday night.
Then there was the surprise ingredient, Robert Covington. A big three that seemingly put the game away with over two minutes left and two big blocks on the other end.
What exactly did Saturday night prove? Nothing. It really only served to offer some perspective on a Celtics team that hasn’t been punched in the mouth much this season, which has been a vast improvement from last year.
In James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the Houston Rockets possess the highest-scoring tandem players in basketball.
Harden came in averaging a league-best 35.2 points per game. Westbrook is second on Houston’s roster at 27.3 PPG, good for seventh in the league.
Harden taking over in Boston has become an annual tradition when the Rockets play on the parquet. Two years ago, Harden scored 34 but it wasn’t enough in a Celtics 99-98 miracle win, erasing a 26-point deficit. Last season, Harden poured in 42 and the Rockets didn’t misfire down the stretch, hanging on for a 115-104 win over the Celtics.
This year, of course, Harden has a nice little helper in the backcourt by the name of Russell Westbrook.
Lesson learned for the playoffs for Brown and the Celtics. When you’re trying to beat a physical opponent, there’s no letting up. The Celtics let up in the second half, albeit slightly, and it cost them.