Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens is a firm believer in Kaizen, which is a principle best known to the Japanese concept of lean manufacturing (please, bear with me), but at is most basic level refers to the way something happens being just as if not more important than how it happened. TL;DR PROCESS OVER RESULTS. As such, though this game was a defeat, it was a close one, and largely involved the Celtics doing all the right things. It’s hard to be mad at them for it.
THE GAME FLOW
Even more so than the first Dubs-Celts matchup of this season, this game against Houston was truly a case of unstoppable force vs. immovable object—at least on paper. But the Rockets are no run-and-gun fluke that a strong hand will instantly knock away. They’re stacked in terms of both star power and bench depth. In the opening stretches of this second contest between Boston and Houston, the home team divided the damage between different parts of the roster, with Harden and Clint Capela doing plenty of damage but Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Luc M’Bah A Moute putting work in as well.
But Boston pressured them considerably, especially on the perimeter where H-Town does so much damage from beyond the arc. Renowned lecturer Jaylen Brown and his colleague Jayson Tatum led the scoring charge for the Cs on the offensive end. Between their work and some critical post work by Greg Monroe that led to foul-line trips, they ended the first quarter of the game on a 10-0 run and led it 32-30 at its end.
Brad Stevens and his Celtics aren’t remotely stupid, and they know how crucial it is to maintain any advantage that is established. Through the lion’s share of the second quarter, they did their best to keep the Rockets from bouncing back, which meant staying ahead. Monroe played a considerable role in this endeavor, taking advantage of his slight edge in size and considerable edge in energy on Capela and Nene, respectively to rack up eight points in limited minutes. Tatum led the Cs in scoring overall but this was decidedly a team effort—even players who weren’t scoring a lot, like Marcus Smart and (shockingly) Kyrie Irving, contributed through facilitating ball movement or, in the latter’s case, serving as decoys.
Houston began to punch back from the hole Boston put them in (as high as eight points) at about 6:25 of Q2, but could not manage to pull away and reestablish the lead they held for much of the game’s first quarter, even with Harden working his way to 16 first-half points in MVP form. But through a combination of team defense, bench brawn (33 of the Celtics 64 first-half points) and luck, the Cs held the Rockets to a 64-58 lead.
Houston was displeased—as any team that could make a case for being the league’s best would be if they were down at home—and at first came out aggressive to begin the third quarter. They expressed some of this by baiting Jaylen Brown into fouls on Harden and pressing as hard in the painted area as they could. To some extent this worked. But Stevens kept Jaylen in the game in an act of considerable faith, so it didn’t achieve quite the advantage it could have.
The Celtics retained their advantage with no real issue until about 8:00 in the frame, when the Rockets’ shots began to fall at a more robust pace and the Celtics made a few miscues on the defensive end (notably a foolish move by Marcus Morris). Then it became knife’s-edge close and Houston got their lead back on an Eric Gordon trey. Kyrie answered it with one of his own, but for the rest of the third quarter, it was a war of attrition and traded leads. Smart showed off the agony and ecstasy of his game in this frame, missing a few easy shots but also making critical ones and retaining his usual fierceness, making a crucial pass to Monroe for a layup that sealed the game’s penultimate quarter with the Celtics leading 89-86.
Things would be tough in this quarter no matter what. And during its first few minutes, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon both turned up the heat with playmaking and shotmaking, respectively, while Nene played far above what his old age would usually suggest in the post to give Capela some rest. But Boston’s counterpunch, which allowed them to keep their lead, came largely from Marcus Morris and Greg Monroe: Morris went completely on fire from beyond the arc, while Monroe seemed almost preternaturally adept at fooling the Houston big man rotation and eating heartily in the low post as a result.
Then things went insane and pear-shaped in the final few minutes.
Trevor Ariza played a huge part in it, which is wild, because Ariza is old as fuck. But he’s also crafty, and got a number of crucial steals and treys in quick succession, and CP3 got another critical steal, all of which served to put the Cs in a state of confusion they hadn’t been in for most of the game (especially in Q4, during which they hardly turned the ball over). It felt as if the last few minutes were gone in a frenzy and then somehow the last 15 seconds—15.4 to be exact—felt like they took about eight years. An agonizing series of foul-game possessions ensued, with Kyrie cursing himself for being too good at free-throw shooting, and a last-second SMARF heave almost went in…except it didn’t. But though this contest ended up a 123-120 loss for the Cs, they fought hard and stayed toe to toe with one of the league’s best teams, so it’s hard to get mad at ’em for it.
HOT SHIT: THE BENCH; Monroe putting in some solid contributions and appearing to mesh more with the Boston style than ever before.
NOT IT: Kyrie had an off night by his standards in general (and especially by his standards over the past few games, which have been MVP-caliber); the last few minutes involved turnovers and miscues that the Celtics avoided all game until that point.
T-Ro getting his Truth on:
SAFETY FIRST THEN TEAMWORK: