BOSTON—Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers watched his team lose to the undermanned Houston Rockets and saw trouble coming from far down the road.
Playing without leading scorer Kevin Martin, the Rockets beat Boston 108-102 on Monday night to snap a five-game losing streak. Afterward, Rivers lamented his players' lack of effort and warned them to take these regular season games more seriously or risk having a long summer to think about them.
"I've got to somehow figure out a way of getting them to see the urgency of the whole season, and not the single game," Rivers told reporters. "Playing Game Seven on the road ... and not just in the finals, if you make it there, but in the playoffs, in the East, which is going to be difficult."
With the loss, Boston (28-9) fell behind the Miami Heat (30-9) for the best record in the Eastern Conference and the potential home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Home-court was crucial in Boston's 2008 championship, but last year the aging Celtics opted to rest up for the postseason instead of chasing the best record. They overcame the disadvantage in beating Cleveland and Orlando in the playoffs before losing Game 7 of the NBA finals to the Lakers in Los Angeles.
With LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining Dwayne Wade in Miami, this season the Celtics can count on more of a struggle within the conference.
"This year's not like last year, where you can coast," Rivers said. "If you don't have home court this year, you could go home."
Aaron Brooks returned from an ankle injury to score 24 points for Houston, hitting a pair of free throws with 18 seconds left after Boston cut a 12-point deficit to four. Kyle Lowry had 17 with eight assists, Luis Scola scored 12 with nine rebounds and Jordan Hill had 12 points and eight rebounds for the Rockets.
"The guys never folded, never gave them an inch," coach Rick Adelman said. "Every time we come up here we have people out and we end up winning the game. It's nice to see. It just goes to show what you can do when you go out there and bust your tail."
It was the third straight year the Rockets have won in Boston and the third time they have been missing key players: Tracy McGrady in 2009; Yao Ming, Trevor Ariza and Martin last year; and Yao, Martin and Miller this time.
"The more people we sit out, the better we play," Brooks said with a laugh.
Ray Allen scored 19 for Boston, Marquis Daniels had season highs of 19 points and seven rebounds and Rajon Rondo had 12 assists. Paul Pierce, who scored 16, sat at his locker after the game, still in his game shorts, staring at a stat sheet before crumpling it up and tossing it on the floor.
"These games mean a lot. We have to put our hard hats on and take advantage of it," he said. "It has to come from everybody. They have to look at themselves and ask themselves, `Are we giving enough as a team?'"
The Celtics have hope that things will improve: Kevin Garnett, who has missed the last seven games with a calf injury, could return as soon as Wednesday night's game against Sacramento.
"This game had nothing to do with Kevin Garnett," Rivers said. "It's a mental mindset, and it starts with me."
Brooks missed 20 games earlier the season with sprained left ankle, then aggravated the injury earlier this month and missed three more games before coming back on Monday night.
The Rockets led by one point at the half and by six after three quarters before scoring six of the first eight points of the fourth. They were up 106-94 with 3:13 left before Daniels made a jumper and then Allen and Pierce followed with 3-pointers to make it a four-point game.
With 19 seconds left, Houston needed three tries to inbound the ball -- one was tipped away, one was an emergency timeout -- before they got it to Brooks. He was immediately fouled, and he hit both free throws to clinch it.
NOTES: New England Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty was sitting courtside. ... The Celtics fell to 16-3 at home. It was their first loss in Boston since Nov. 19, when they lost to Oklahoma City in a game Kevin Durant didn't play. ... The Rockets' five-game losing streak matched its longest of the season; they opened the season 0-5. ... Daniels had seven points in the second quarter as Boston cut a nine-point deficit to one point.