Houston Rockets 115, Boston Celtics 104: An improving defense

Kelly Iko of the Athletic recently published an article regarding the Rockets second-half defense following the All-Star break. Having been ranked no better than 25th throughout most of the season, the team’s defensive rating in these second halves had posted a 105.7 rating, good enough for fifth in the league. At five games, the sample size is small, and the opponents, with the exception of the Warriors, have not been true tests. Which is why this Sunday matinee against the Celtics, who are currently fifth in a remarkably competitive Eastern Conference, would prove to be a good gauge of how far the team has come from the bowels of their 11-14 start.

In the 1st quarter, the Rockets got off to a great start, with Eric Gordon showcasing a vintage 2017-2018 performance. It makes you wonder how much better the team would be this season if they had a more consistent version of the former Sixth Man of the Year. EG would end up notching 11 points in the 1st quarter alone, knocking down three 3-pointers, including this beautiful feed from Chris Paul:

The Rockets’ defense proved to be very active, with James Harden and Paul having a pair of back-to-back steals. The team was equally aggressive on the boards, an encouraging sign given their defensive rebounding issues all season and the fact that one of their key rebounding presences, Kenneth Faried, was a late scratch due to hip soreness. The team would ultimately match the Celtics on the glass this game, logging 42 rebounds to the home team’s 44. What was more encouraging was how the Rockets got contributions from the whole team to get those 42 boards – Clint Capela grabbed 9, PJ Tucker notched 8, James Harden snagged 7 and Chris Paul took down 6. Lastly, while Harden made a cool 13 points in the 1st quarter, there was more ball movement to get guys like EG open shots and less of the herculean ISO Harden has had to perform in stretches due to the team having so many players out this season. The Rockets offensive attack has continued to get more balanced as players have come back from injury. At the end of the 1st quarter, a combination of great defense and excellent 3-point shooting gave the Rockets a 33-23 lead.

The Rockets’ defense proved to be very active, with James Harden and Paul having a pair of back-to-back steals. The team was equally aggressive on the boards, an encouraging sign given their defensive rebounding issues all season and the fact that one of their key rebounding presences, Kenneth Faried, was a late scratch due to hip soreness. The team would ultimately match the Celtics on the glass this game, logging 42 rebounds to the home team’s 44. What was more encouraging was how the Rockets got contributions from the whole team to get those 42 boards – Clint Capela grabbed 9, PJ Tucker notched 8, James Harden snagged 7 and Chris Paul took down 6. Lastly, while Harden made a cool 13 points in the 1st quarter, there was more ball movement to get guys like EG open shots and less of the herculean ISO Harden has had to perform in stretches due to the team having so many players out this season. The Rockets offensive attack has continued to get more balanced as players have come back from injury. At the end of the 1st quarter, a combination of great defense and excellent 3-point shooting gave the Rockets a 33-23 lead.

Heading into the 2nd quarter, the Rockets continued their winning ways. The team hit 6 three-pointers to match their continued defensive intensity. Gordon and Harden would add to their already sizable point totals, scoring another 9 and 10, respectively. CP’s passing was as crisp as always, and he would end up finishing the 1st half with 8 assists. Rivers, who has been somewhat sub-par behind the arc, barring his recent performance against the Miami Heat, showed his ability to drive to the bucket in isolation. At the end of the half, the Rockets logged what was perhaps their greatest 1st half of defense the whole season, even prompting ABC telecaster Hubie Brown to call the Rockets defense “underrated.” Let’s hold on a second there, Hubie! But, hey, we’ll take it. At the half, the Rockets grew their lead over the Celtics to 22 with a score of 65 Houston, 43 Boston. But we all know what happens to Rockets’ leads this season, and we still had a full two quarters to not hold our breath.

Into the 3rd quarter the Rockets went, continuing to answer each Boston run. The Rockets were able to grow their lead to as much as 28, giving Rockets’ fans at least some time to breathe easy. However, Eric Gordon would begin to cool down after having knocked down eight three-pointers. The whistle on the Rockets seemed to tighten as the team began to commit several careless fouls, resulting in the Celtics getting to the line fifteen times. The Celtics were able to get the lead down to as low as 15, but with about a minute or so remaining in the quarter, Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens decided to pull out his starters except for Marcus Smart. I was somewhat befuddled by this move because in a league as fast-paced as the NBA, a minute is a sizeable amount of time for any team to grow (or shrink) a lead. Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni opted to keep both Harden and Paul in, and CP3 scored a quick five to bring the Rockets lead back up to 22. At the end of the 3rd quarter, the Celtics and Rockets scored the same amount of points (35), resulting in a score of Rockets 100, Celtics 78.

The fourth quarter was when the Celtics defense started to come alive, which helped them stage an immediate 8-0 run. Fans at TD Garden started to get louder as the Celtics made one key stop after another, and the Rockets defense couldn’t seem to match the intensity. The Rockets, who had eight turnovers to start the quarter, would quickly commit another four. Rockets fans started worrying once again as the Celtics were able to cut down what was once a seemingly insurmountable Rockets lead to 9 points. Harden would be called on a particularly questionable foul call, for which he answered on the other end with a three-point shot almost as ridiculous as his game-winner against Golden State:

Harden would uncharacteristically foul out with 1:44 left in the game with the Rockets up by 9. It was time for the other Rockets players to step up and PJ Tucker answered the call, grabbing a key defensive rebound at the 1:07 mark, a steal at 0:48, and an offensive rebound at 0:33. His contribution could not be understated to close out the game.

The Rockets were able to fight off a late-stage run by the Celtics, winning the game 115-104. Harden’s MVP case grows stronger, as the Beard would finish with 42 points, seven rebounds and four assists. EG put together an excellent performance as well, going 8-12 from three-point range and scoring 32 points. The Rockets bench unfortunately only contributed nine points, but all in all, this was a good win for the team despite a late scare from the Celtics. The Rockets have now won 5 games straight, are closing in on the three-seed in the West (one game back from the Portland Trailblazers), and hope to have a fully healthy lineup back for a Tuesday night matchup against the Toronto Raptors.

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