Rockets 119, Celtics 114

Sound beating

Alarms blare in home loss to Rockets

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / April 3, 2010

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The absence of defense didn’t bother Doc Rivers the most.

For the second straight game, his Celtics chose to shoot it out with an opponent rather than stop them. They used a proven formula for stopping the Rockets a month ago in Houston — smother them around the free throw line, especially Aaron Brooks — but last night in a 119-114 loss at TD Garden they abandoned the strategy.

They let the Rockets shoot 50.6 percent — the 16th team this season to shoot better than 50 percent from the floor against the Celtics. They let the Rockets knock down eight of their first 10 3-pointers and 12 of 18 on the night. They let Brooks get 30 points and nine assists, including a lightning bolt 3-pointer from 26 feet that sent the game into overtime.

But it wasn’t the defense that bothered Rivers.

It was that the Celtics killed themselves with mental mistakes.

“I didn’t think we played very smart tonight,’’ Rivers said, after seeing his team drop its third straight game on this six-game homestand. “There are so many little things that I could point out.’’

He could have pointed to Nate Robinson firing a 25-foot 3-pointer with 19 seconds left in the first quarter and the Celtics up, 30-29, rather than holding the ball for the final shot of the quarter. It gave the Rockets the ball, and led to Brooks making a layup, getting fouled, and converting the conventional 3-point play.

One mistake and the Celtics go from being up 1 to down 2 to start the second quarter.

Rivers could have pointed to several of Chase Budinger’s six 3-pointers, but particularly the one he drained with 2:02 left in overtime, when several Celtics broke prematurely to the offensive end.

“You don’t go back down until you secure the basketball,’’ Rivers said. “We played like a high school team at times, as far as the way our thought process was.’’

After losses to San Antonio and Oklahoma City, the Celtics seemed to rebound early against Houston, knocking down 12 of their first 15 shots, taking an 11-point lead 7 minutes into the first quarter. They dismantled a Rockets team that was missing key pieces, including Trevor Ariza (flu-like symptoms) and Shane Battier (sprained left knee).

But the Celtics gave it all back by the end of the quarter, letting the Rockets heat up from 3-point range. Brooks, who had 11 points in last month’s meeting, had 8 by the end of the first.

The Celtics got a 27-point night from Paul Pierce, but he didn’t score after the third quarter. He had a chance to end it in regulation, getting an isolation play on Chuck Hayes. He got to his sweet spot and pulled up for a jumper in the lane that fell short and failed to beat the buzzer.

With Ray Allen (5 points) and Kevin Garnett (4 for 12, 12 points) toiling away, the Celtics leaned on Rajon Rondo, who was defending Brooks.

Rondo stayed in Brooks’s pocket in the fourth quarter, when he had three of his five steals, including one that he took the other way for a layup that made it 102-96 with 3:34 left in the fourth.

But with the Rockets down, 106-109, and less than a minute left, Brooks drained a 3-pointer from 26 feet to force overtime.

The Celtics ran cold in the extra session, going 2 for 9, and Luis Scola fired a dagger with 51.8 seconds left, spotting up on the wing and drilling a 19-footer that made it 117-114.

In the last five games, the Celtics have allowed an average of 101.4 points, an alarming number for a defensively-minded team.

“We have to address it,’’ Pierce said. “I mean when you give up 50 percent, the last couple of games getting up over a hundred points. I think we have to do a better job of perimeter players not allowing dribble penetration. I think that’s the start of it. It starts from the wing players. We allow so much dribble penetration. That’s what you saw tonight, a lot of dribble penetration from their guards. Big men help and they kick out for their threes that they really hit.’’

“It starts, not with team defense,’’ said Kendrick Perkins. “It starts individually first.’’

But moreover, the uncharacteristic errors were troubling. The Celtics went to the free throw line 37 times and missed 13 — four in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, they put the Rockets on the line 11 times in the second half, and they connected on all of them.

“It’s very frustrating,’’ Perkins said. “Just to know where we come from, a team of execution. I just feel like we’ve got to execute better down the stretch. We’ve got to be smarter. We can’t just do dumb stuff down the stretch.’’

Rivers said he could get past the night’s other malfunctions. But the simple things, were inexcusable.

“Tonight I thought it was April 1,’’ said Rivers. “It was amazing, I thought, how many things we did that were out of character, and that bothers me. I can live with a loss, but when you don’t play right, that bothers me.’’

Tough days ahead?
The Celtics’ 119-114 overtime loss to Houston last night was only their 10th of the season against a non-playoff team. Boston now will face four playoff-bound teams in its final seven regular-season games — beginning tomorrow at TD Garden against Cleveland — as it tries to overtake Atlanta for the third seed in the Eastern Conference. A look at how the Celtics have fared this season:

Versus playoff teams: 20-18
. . . from the East: 12-10
. . . from the West: 8-8
Versus non-playoff team: 27-10

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