BOSTON – The Celtics returned home from a six-game road swing to face the Houston Rockets on Friday night, but Boston’s defense did not arrive at the TD Garden until the second half of a 93-87 loss.
The visitors, led by a career night by power forward Donatas Motiejunas (26 points, 12 rebounds), scored 60 points before intermission with ease, feasting on wide open looks all over the floor against their disengaged hosts.
Effort normally hasn’t been an issue during Brad Stevens’ tenure in Boston, but he made sure got his message across at halftime after his team's lackluster showing led to an 18-point deficit.
“Coach’s speech [at halftime], everyone felt it,” Brandon Bass said after game. “I just thought everyone wanted to come out with a better effort. We wanted to step it up.”
Bass (team-high 17 points) and his teammates did just that over the game’s final 24 minutes, limiting one of the NBA’s best offenses to just 33 points after the break in the hard fought loss. Ultimately, it was Boston’s own offense (35.6 percent from the field) that kept the team from completing an impressive comeback, but Stevens was pleased with how his squad responded after the slow start.
“I just thought we played with much more urgency,” Stevens said. “I thought we were flying around a lot better. You know, I thought they played well in the first half but I thought we played poorly. And, you know, the second half might have been as good of a half of defense as we’ve played all year. To hold that team to 33 points is good, and six or eight of those were on free throws at the end. So I mean you felt like you were guarding and making it difficult.”
Nobody had a tougher night for the Rockets than the NBA’s leading scorer James Harden. While the shooting guard was a terrific distributor in the first half, he failed to find his shooting rhythm all night long while being hounded by Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder and Evan Turner on the defensive end. Harden (14 points) finished a brutal 4-for-21 from the field and took just five free throw attempts, four below his season average.
With Harden struggling, the Rockets only managed to score a season-low nine points in the third quarter. The Celtics own offensive woes made it a slow rally, but they steadily chipped away at the 18-point lead, cutting Houston's edge to three before the Rockets regained control.
“I wish we can always start out like that (the way the second half started),” Marcus Thornton, who scored 17 points off the bench, said after the game. “I hate being down 20. You fight so hard to get back in the game you run out of gas. If we can start that way, we’ll be fine.”
Overall, it was another night of progress for the young team, but it’s going to take more consistency over 48 minutes to hang with the league’s elite.
“The key to every game is how you start the first quarter, how you end the second quarter, how you start the third, and how you end the game,” Tayshaun Prince said. “Lately that’s where we’ve been kind of up and down a bit. If we can get those things in order everything will take care of itself. But the most important thing is you’ve got to play with some energy.”