By MyFM's Jake Archer - The Boston Celtics were facing one of, if not the biggest test they have faced all year long on Saturday night. They were in Houston going against a Rockets team that had the best record in the NBA, a 14-game winning streak and weapons all over the floor. This was going to be a tough one, but the C's had been playing well and were confident they could go in and knock off James Harden and company. It was going to be a battle, that was for sure.
With the long winning streak on the line for Houston, this felt like deja vu from a game back in 2008 when another Celtics team flew down to Houston to face a Rockets team that was playing out of their minds. Those Rockets, led by NBA legend Tracy McGrady, were on a 22-game win streak and they had quite a lot of talent just like this team ten years later. The Celtics were one of the best teams in the league as well and were being led by some exciting superstars you might remember, like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. That Boston team beat the Rockets and snapped their historic streak in a year that they would go on to win the NBA Finals. This year's Celtics team might have the most excitement surrounding them since that 2007-2008 squad and I was hoping for a little repeat in Texas.
Sadly, that was just not to be as the Celtics of 2017-2018 have a lot more work to do and needed a bit more to topple Houston on Saturday night. This matchup lived up to the billing as the game stayed pretty close throughout. Boston led by three entering the fourth quarter but the Rockets would take a 96-95 lead with about nine and a half minutes left. Marcus Morris snatched the lead back by banging two threes but Houston's Eric Gordon retaliated with two deep balls of his own on a 6-2 run.
Morris was not finished and he scored five straight points to give his team a 108-102 lead. Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni was forced to call a timeout and get his team to regroup with six and a half minutes left. They'd stay the course and later on in the quarter go on a 10-2 run that was spearheaded by Trevor Ariza. With just over a minute remaining, the Rockets had a 117-115 lead.
Al Horford, who had a pretty miserable game and wilted down the stretch, missed shots on the next two possessions for Boston. Houston's Chris Paul buried two free throws to make it a two possession game but Kyrie Irving came down the floor for a layup to cut the lead to just a basket. Boston had to foul again and this time they sent James Harden to the line. Harden hit one of his two free throws to push the lead to three with 7.4 seconds left. Kyrie and Chris Paul then traded two free throws each before Irving went to the line one final time. Kyrie drilled the first and then attempted to miss the second on purpose so that he or a teammate could tie the game with a lay in. That plan failed and the Celtics had run out of hope.
Boston fouled Gordon who made one of two free throws to bring the lead to 123-120. Marcus Smart had a last second heave from deep to tie it, but it bounced off the rim and gave Houston the win. It was the first loss for the Celtics since the All Star break and it dropped them to 44-20 which is still second place in the East. They are two games behind Toronto and seven games ahead of third place Cleveland. The Rockets improve to 14-13 which is good for best in the West and the NBA overall. Still, just a half game seperates them and the Golden State Warriors in the standings.
Morris led the C's with 21 points, four rebounds, one assist and three steals. Kyrie, Horford and Jayson Tatum all scored in double figures, but the bench is really what kept Boston in the game. Terry Rozier, Greg Monroe, Smart and Morris all filled up the stat sheet and got into double digit points. They also all had positive plus/minus ratings, while the starters were all negative or at 0. Houston ran behind Eric Gordon, James Harden and Trevor Ariza with 29, 26 and 21 points respectively. Chris Paul also added 15. The Rockets were without sharp shooting Ryan Anderson because of a hip injury.
The win is also payback for the Rockets after they blew a huge lead in Boston earlier this year. The Celtics stormed back from 26 down to beat Houston 99-98 in late December. This 15 game winning streak ties the second-longest in franchise history for the Rockets and actually bests another one from this year that ran for 14 games. They went perfect through the month of February and are a real threat to contend for a championship behind a high-powered offense and an improved defense.
The Celtics defense, meanwhile, needs to ramp it up. Apart from Marcus Smart, they really haven't been as good as they need to be. Smart was also part of a very scary moment during the game when he went down with what looked like a non-contact knee injury. I initially feared the worst as I watched him clutch at his knee while rolling on the ground, but he ended up being fine. That would have been a gigantic loss for a team that needs him badly, especially now.
Boston visits the Bulls tonight and will be without Irving, who will sit with a sore knee. Shane Larkin will get the start in his place.