Things I like about Houston: UGK, Beyonce, Scarface, the influence of the chopped/screwed sound on modern hip-hop production. Things I don’t like: The Celtics facing a squad in Houston led by two superstars who excel at getting to the line, both legitimately and illegitimately. Let’s look at key aspects of what went wrong:
Officiating hellworld & the double-foul jamboree
The Rockets shot 42 free-throw attempts by comparison to the Celtics’ 25. Marcus Smart addressed it angrily in postgame comments (and may end up fined as a result; we’ll see). Now, I’m not here to litigate James Harden’s gangly, flailing Eurostep for the gazillionth time and claim it invalidates his greatness (it doesn’t), or argue against Russell Westbrook’s more restrained version of the same tactic. They’re superstars and get called as such. And Smart and the league refs have already established deep mutual antipathy due to mistakes on both sides. Saying it’s all the officials’ fault is reductive…
…but games like that make me want to! Celtics’ players usually capable of reaching the line, like Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward, were far from it much of the game, and Jayson Tatum got there for 9 FTAs but only canned 5 of them.
The tomfoolery of all this is compounded by referees’ internal confusion, as exemplified by the Robert Covington/Grant Williams double foul turned blocking foul debacle. Unfortunately, the reasoning behind that chain of events hasn’t been better explained between last night and now beyond Karalis’s thread (click through for full rundown):
The defense was good—except when it really wasn’t
In much of the first half and for notable stretches of the second, Boston defended Houston quite well. Harden was only at 11 points at the halftime buzzer, while Westbrook had reached 15. Danuel House was the only other Rockets player in double digits, and the rest of the team had barely scored (a trend that the team’s victory didn’t abate). Basically, the Cs had locked down the Rockets roleplayers almost completely and were forcing Harden to earn his points away from the charity stripe…until a third of the way through Q3. Boston maintained an intensely physical defense and Harden started racking up calls by driving through it, many of which were legit. Most of the ticky-tack calls that were egregiously spurious involved Westbrook rather than his oft-vilified backcourt partner.
Houston didn’t crack 100 points until there were barely 5 minutes left in the game, which is reasonably atypical for them. This was not long after a Tatum layup made the game just 96-94 Rockets: At that point, the Cs started sprouting turnovers, misses and other stupid mistakes like weeds on their proverbial lawn, which gave the Rockets enough of a window to score 15 points in just over two minutes of play. And that was pretty much that.
Tatum’s off night
In the grand scheme of things, Tatum having a blah performance after a stretch of excellent play that began before the Celtics started the seven-game win streak that ended last evening—and was, in large part, fueling said streak—is hardly the end of the world.
But it looked really bad with the free-throw misses (and airballs) and inefficient shooting (5-for-15; 33%) . Especially because Tatum is a player who needs to be excellent against a team with the Rockets’ specific attributes. There were bright spots for Taco Jay, most of them on defense (9 rebounds, 4 steals, a lot of intense pressure), but it’s not unreasonable to say his missed shots were a big problem in a game that was often close and didn’t definitively turn bleak until its final minutes.
The coin-flip center performances
In one corner you have the 6’8″ Daniel Theis, undeniably undersized for his position but well-suited against a small-ball Rockets squad. In the other corner, it’s the 6’10” Enes Kanter, who should’ve feasted on a Rockets bench that was not only undersized but also guard-dominated and shorthanded.
Theis was remarkably effective with 11 points and 9 boards (4 on the offensive glass). Kanter was the opposite of that, with more turnovers (2) than points (0) despite only playing 8 minutes. He certainly didn’t lose the game for the Celtics but was awful and easily exploited by Houston whenever he took the floor. Compare that to Grant Williams, who played barely any more minutes (8:45) but made the most of them with 7 points, 4 boards and only 1 turnover.
The All-Star break comes at just the right time
Adding insult to the various injuries of this game, Jaylen Brown re-aggravated his troublesome ankle late in Q4. It didn’t look too bad, but the Cs might be better off keeping him out of Thursday’s matchup against the Clippers.
This break will be much-savored by a team whose five best players have rarely been at their disposal simultaneously. (Kemba and Jayson both have to appear at All-Star Weekend, but something tells me it won’t be too demanding.) When games resume, there will be greater frontcourt depth with the return of Robert Williams, and this team that’s emerged as a reasonable contender (if by no means a Finals favorite) can continue its run of expectation-exceeding quality.