By Gary Washburn Globe Staff
Four weeks ago, when the Celtics faced the Houston Rockets for the first time at Toyota Center, they were a lifeless team in the second half, unable or unwilling to compete with the Rockets’ furious pace, straying from their defensive principles, and frustrated by their lack of offensive cohesion.
Those problems have apparently dissipated in the past 10 days, as the Celtics defense attacked the Rockets, the league’s highest-scoring team entering the night, and had enough savvy to withstand a furious fourth-quarter run. The difference between the Celtics then and the Celtics now is stark, and the result Friday was a rewarding 103-91 victory at TD Garden.
With the bench contributing to a double-digit lead for most of the first three quarters, the veteran starters, notably Kevin Garnett, had enough energy to lift the Celtics after the Rockets sliced the lead to 2 with 7:22 left. Garnett scored 6 straight points to complete a 15-3 run as the Celtics clinched their fifth straight win.
A team with so much uncertainty two weeks ago, bogged down by trade rumors and players unsure of their roles, the Celtics have quickly become locked in. And it coincides with the return of Avery Bradley.
Not only does Bradley generally defend the opposing team’s most prolific scorer, such as Houston’s James Harden, but his presence has enabled players such as Courtney Lee and Jason Terry to settle into their reserve roles. In turn the bench has been more effective, like Friday when it produced 40 points on 17-for-28 shooting with 19 rebounds and 10 assists.
Jared Sullinger again was stellar with 14 points and 11 rebounds, his third double-double of the season and third straight double-digit rebound game. That type of production has enabled Garnett and Paul Pierce to enter the fourth quarter with fresh legs, eagerly anticipating the chance to seal victories.
The veteran duo combined for 16 of the Celtics’ 25 fourth-quarter points.
“The good thing is, that’s where the bench is so important,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “Because when that run happens the starters were off the floor in some ways; you put your starters back on and they have rest. They’re ready. And they were fresh down the stretch. And when you look at the minutes, you know Kevin, I think, which is unusual for us, led our starters in minutes at 33. That’s low minutes for everyone else. That means they’re fresh.”
After 31 games of maddening inconsistency and little offensive production from the bench, the Celtics are winning with depth and balance. The bench helped build a 12-point lead after three quarters but then wasted half of that before Rivers shuttled in the starters.
The uptempo Rockets played their game for about a three-minute stretch of the fourth quarter, tallying a 12-0 run to slice the Celtics’ lead to 83-81 following a Chandler Parsons fast-break dunk on Pierce.
Pierce countered with a looping 20-footer over two defenders, Rondo came back with two free throws, and Brandon Bass, ineffective most of the evening, turned in his most significant play with a tip-in of a Rondo jumper. Pierce continued the surge with a steal of an errant Harden pass and a streaking layup and free throw for a 10-point lead.
The crowd, sensing the Rockets were done, went into a frenzy. And Garnett completed the run with his three consecutive baskets, including a one-handed hammer dunk off the dribble when the Rockets left the lane unoccupied.
“It’s a great balance for which we have right now,” Garnett said. “So we just gotta continue to do it. Now that we’ve got guys in their roles it’s starting to all come together. But consistency, man, I don’t want to sit here and say it and then the next time we come out and look like [junk]. So I’m trying to get this team together.”
Former Harvard standout Jeremy Lin scored 12 points with 6 assists and 5 rebounds in 36 minutes but was scoreless in the fourth quarter and was on the bench during the Celtics’ decisive run.
The Celtics held the Rockets to 43.8 percent shooting and Harden to 24 points, snapping his streak of 25 points or more at 14 games.
Houston struggled from the perimeter all evening, missing 24 of 33 3-point shots. The Rockets also missed a whopping 17 free throws.
“They really got into us on the bench. They kind of extended that game in the second quarter with their bench and got kind of a lead on us and then we fought back,” said Kevin McHale, in his second season as Houston coach. “And like I said, for us we’re gonna have to make some shots and I thought we handled their pressure better in the second half, didn’t turn it over as much, missed too many free throws and too many shots. We’re not the type of team that can, you know, get shots and not make some of them. It’s just how we play.”
The Celtics held a sixth consecutive opponent under 100 points and a fifth straight opponent under 45 percent shooting.
“For whatever reason it’s taken a while but now they’ve kind of bought in,” Rivers said. “Our defense has been pretty good, once again holding a high-scoring team to 91 points. We’re holding teams under the [desired] number, that’s because of the defense, and when we do that, we score.”