Powered by a bench that provided double-digit scoring performances by Jared Sullinger and Courtney Lee, the Celtics out-hustled the Rockets and continued their unlikely turnaround.
Paul Pierce dropped 23 points, Rajon Rondo finished with 12 points and eight assists, and Kevin Garnett had 17 points and eight rebounds, but the bench was the real story. Their defense, rebounding and hustle sparked the Celtics’ starters out of their malaise as Boston posted another encouraging effort.
If Houston had be able to knock down a free throw, this game might have been different. The Rockets shot 12-for-29 from the stripe, pretty much killing their chances on a night they were also held to 9-for-33 shooting from downtown.
Fourth quarter, 3:06, Celtics 98-84: Houston, you have a problem.
Just like Pierce, Garnett will not be allowing any fourth-quarter comeback here. Garnett punctuated a personal 6-2 run with a hop-step dunk to send McHale scrambling to call a timeout. Does somebody smell five straight wins?
Fourth quarter, 5:51, Celtics 92-82: Maybe the Celtics do not have to worry. After all, they always have Pierce. With things looking worrisome for Boston, the captain took over. He stepped around a screen for a long two-point jumper to make it a two-possession game, then Rondo hit two free throws before Harden split a pair of his own.
Bass tipped home a miss, and at the other end Harden threw the ball to nobody in particular, giving Pierce and open lane for a transition layup, plus the foul.
Fourth quarter, 7:22, Celtics 83-81: The reserves fell asleep to begin the fourth, and the starters kept the snooze going. Who else is left to wake up the Celtics?
Parson threw down the hammer over Pierce on the break to cut Boston’s lead to two points. That is the closest the Rockets have been since early in the second quarter, when Greg Smith dunked to pulled Houston within one point.
The Celtics have been outscored 15-5 in the first 4:38 of this quarter.
Fourth quarter, 8:51, Celtics 83-74: Do not turn this one off yet. The Rockets can score in bunches, so a nine-point deficit — yes, that is how close this game is after the Celtics led by as many as 17 — is not insurmountable.
Garnett is the only Boston player to score in the first two-plus minutes of the fourth quarter. His jumper and and-one jumper kept the Rockets at bay, but it will take more than one guy playing offense to protect this lead for the Celtics.
End of third quarter, : As strong as Lee was in the first half, he is having a much rougher second half. He tossed the ball out of bounds while trying to kick it out to Terry as he drove the lane, then telegraphed his pass to the wing for an easy pick-off by Patrick Patterson and a run-out layup by Harden.
Fortunately for Lee and the Celtics, the starters were resurgent in the third quarter, so the Celtics’ lead only grew. Pierce had 11 points on 3-for-4 shooting and Rondo has six points and three assists.
Third quarter, 2:56, Celtics 74-59: The Rockets are coming off a road loss to the Hornets, so the last thing they want is for this one — the first leg of a back-to-back — to turn into a laugher. Harden, Lin and Parsons, the fuel to Houston’s high-octane offense, have pushed this to a 15-point game with plenty of time left to make it interesting.
Third quarter, 6:08, Celtics 69-54: Rivers has always been a fan of Chandler Parsons’ game and it is easy to see why. The second-year swingman is one of the few Rockets putting pressure on the Celtics’ defense, having taken the ball strong to the hoop twice in the early going of the second half.
Of course, the Celtics were not overly interested when Parsons entered the draft two years ago in part because they also have a pretty good small forward. Pierce drilled two threes to begin the third quarter and has 10 points in the frame, which is not even half done.
So, to recap: Parsons is a nice player, but Pierce is a perennial All-Star and future Hall of Famer — just in case you were not already aware.
Halftime, Celtics 53-45: All those folks who were making fun of Pierce’s “scary good” tweet during the preseason are conspicuously silent now.
The Celtics look every bit the “scary” deep team many of us expected they would be. The return of Bradley has been key, but not in the way many people anticipated. Bradley’s return to the starting lineup has enabled a true second group to form, and that group ran roughshod over their Houston counterparts in the first half.
Sullinger had 14 points and eight rebounds to lead a Boston bench that outscored its own starters 36-17 in the first 24 minutes. The Celtics bench managed to tie the Rockets starters. All we’re saying is that even if the Celtics’ starters did not exist, the Celtics would still be right in this game.
Second quarter, 2:14, Celtics 50-37: Doc Rivers took his sweet time putting the starters back into the game. His bench was simply playing too good to come off the court.
Even after the starters re-entered (with Sullinger in place of Bass), Boston’s bench is still outscoring the starters 36-14. Sullinger leads the way with 14 points. Lee has 10 and Green is right on his heels with nine points.
Second quarter, 5:07, Celtics 43-33: The Celtics bench is filled with a bunch of sell-outs.
That’s a good thing, too. Green, Lee, Terry and Sullinger have been “selling out” on defense and for loose balls all over the floor. Green made a nifty bounce pass to begin a transition possession that ended with a corner three by Terry.
That was bookended by two Green dunks. It followed a one-handed dunk by Green barrelling down the lane, and preceded Lee driving the left baseline and dropping a dime to Green flashing down the right baseline for a two-hander.
Second quarter, 8:29, Celtics 32-25: Avery Bradley was telling us the other day that Jason Terry brings energy, even when he does not shoot well. Terry showed the impact he can have without shooting, going to the parquet to tip a loose ball back inbounds.
Green gobbled up the ball and found Lee ahead of the pack for an easy layup. In a theme of this four-game win streak, the Celtics are just plain working harder than their opponent.
Of course, if the Rockets could hit a free throw, they might not have to work so hard. Houston is 1-for-8 from the foul line and Asik and Greg Smith really were not close at all on their six combined attempts.
End of first quarter, Celtics 24-21: The best news for the Celtics after 12 minutes is that they have held the Rockets to just 21 points.
Aside from the typical reasons — scoring more points than their opponents — the Celtics were able to get the Rockets to play more at a halfcourt pace. They failed to do that, miserably, when they traveled to Houston in December, and that pace contributed to a 12-point loss that was not as close as that score indicates.
Sullinger and Lee led an even scoring attack with 11 points combined off the bench as the Celtics’ reserves turned around a deficit handed to them by the starters. Garnett and an otherwise all-bench lineup will be out there to start the second quarter.
First quarter, 1:47, Celtics 20-19: Jared Sullinger has sparked the Celtics in a lot of areas, but none has been bigger than his pure hustle. The rookie worked his way to a putback layup to finally end Boston’s drought of nearly six minutes. That turned out to spark the rest of the Celtics as well, especially the second unit.
Helped by four missed free throws by Omer Asik, a dreadful foul shooter, the Celtics took off on a 12-2 run that included 3-pointers by Courtney Lee and Jeff Green. Harden’s step-back jumper over Lee was the lone Rockets basket in that span.
First quarter, 5:57, Rockets 14-8: The Celtics came out lightning hot, but since that blazing start they have been, well, not so hot.
The Celtics hit their first four shots, with Garnett draining a jump shot less than two minutes into the action to give Boston an 8-4 lead. In more than four minutes since, the Celtics are 0-for-6 from the field as Houston has taken the lead thanks to a 10-0 run.
Parsons, Lin and Harden, as tough a 1-2-3 combo to cover as there is, scored every single point in the run.
6:50 p.m.: Kevin McHale mentioned the minutes Kevin Garnett has accumulated in his 18-year career. In most walks of life, Garnett, 36, would still be a young man, but in the NBA — especially after 47,000 minutes — Garnett is building on a long, grueling career.
Yet all that paled in comparison to the achievements of a much smaller and much less-heralded basketball player who roots for The Big Ticket.
Garnett could only shake his head Friday when he was presented with a newspaper story about Roman Sweeney, a senior at North Central Charter Essential School in Fitchburg, Mass., prior to the game. Sweeney, 19, plays for the North Central team despite being born without legs and only one arm.
“Things like that are simply amazing,” Garnett said. “I have no reaction other than what you see now. There’s no words for that. That’s truly amazing.”
“That’s true determination. That’s someone who really loves basketball.”
On a much smaller scale, reporters were also somewhat in awe of seeing Garnett before the game. Garnett does not typically address the media prior to games, and said he has not since his rookie year in 1995-96. According to Garnett, he had a bad game after holding a pregame interview and veteran teammate Terry Porter told him to never speak with the media before a game again. So for some 17 years, he did not. Maybe if he goes off for 30 points and 15 rebounds against the Rockets, he will make a habit of talking before every game.
The projected starting lineups are below.
8 a.m. ET: Most teams would rather not face James Harden and the Rockets right now. Even after losing to the Hornets on Tuesday in the second night of a back-to-back, Houston (21-15) has won 12 of its last 16 games, including two separate five-game winning streaks. The have scored in triple-digits 15 times since Dec. 1, a stretch that has spanned 20 games.
If anyone is not afraid of the run-and-gun Rockets, though, it should be the Celtics. Boston (18-17) has won four straight and looks like a completely different team than the one that lost 101-89 in Houston last month. This is the second contest in a five-game homestand in which the Celtics could make up some ground in the Eastern Conference after their poor start.
Join us for updates and analysis from the TD Garden during the game, which tips off at 7:30 p.m. ET.