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Tuesday March 18, 2008 11:55 PM

Celtics end Rockets' 22-game winning streak

Boston 94, Houston 74

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Damien Pierce
Rockets.com Staff Writer

HOUSTON -- During the late stages of the fourth quarter, Paul Pierce plopped himself onto the scorer's table and watched a video featuring Houston's historic winning streak on the scoreboard.

He and the Celtics then ensured there wouldn't be a sequel.

Before the largest home crowd in Rockets history, the NBA's best team ended the second-longest winning streak in league history Tuesday night by knocking off Houston 94-74 at Toyota Center.

The Rockets (46-21) suffered their first setback in almost two months and had their remarkable winning streak snapped at 22 games, falling 11 games shy of matching Wilt Chamberlain and the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers for the longest win streak ever in the NBA.

Houston couldn't overcome a stagnant offensive performance as the Celtics' league-leading defense bullied them from start to finish.

Without an answer for Boston's swarming defense, the Rockets watched their amazing run finally come to an end.

"I'm too close to the situation right now to really appreciate it," Rockets forward Shane Battier said. "When I’m old and gray and can’t dribble this basketball anymore, I think I'll appreciate it. Right now, we're still in a playoff run and have got some dogs barking at our heels."

The Celtics bottled up the Rockets from onset.

Boston's D was glued to Tracy McGrady from start to finish, rarely allowing Houston's lone star to find an opening. Coming off seemingly every pick-and-roll that the Rockets ran, McGrady was blitzed by two defenders and forced to surrender the ball.

That defensive manuever stumped McGrady and Co. for the second straight game. The Rockets' shooting guard couldn't get into a rhythm, attempting a mere 11 shots. He sank four of them for eight points.

McGrady said after the game that his supporting cast needed to hit open shots when the defense is clamping down on him. Alston agreed.

"We got to move the ball and move our bodies," Alston said. "Everybody thought they could do it alone tonight for some odd reason. That's not like us. We got to get away from that. We have to move the ball. Think about it: If there are two people on one person, someone is open. We got to pass that person and that person has to make the next play because the defense is going to swing to them. I think if we could have attacked them better, it would have been nip-and-tuck to the end."

Instead, the Rockets watched the Celtics turn the game into a blowout.

After going into the break knotted at 40-40, Houston struggled to generate any good looks and became stagnant on the offensive end against the Celtics' swarming defense. The Celtics overwhelmed the Rockets in the paint, forcing Houston to settle for jumpers and giving them only one shot per possession.

Boston, meanwhile, was putting on a shooting clinic. The Celtics made eight of their first 12 shots in the third quarter. Kevin Garnett, who scored 22 points and collected 11 rebounds, scored eight points in the third as Boston opened the period with a game-deciding 18-5 spurt. Just like that, Boston was leading 58-45.

Unfortunately, the Rockets never recovered. Houston scored a season-low 34 points in the second half and shot a mere 41.4 percent. On top of that, the Rockets had only 16 assists to go with 17 turnovers.

Before the game was over, Boston had stretched its advantage to as much as 27 points.

"We're at our best when we get balance and get to our second and third option," Battier said. "That allows Tracy a lot more room to operate. Boston did a great job. We didn't find the second and third options and that's been our weakness the entire year when we've lost. It's nothing that we don't feel we can remedy. We just have to move the ball a little better and get better body movement."

The Rockets won't have to wait long to put that plan into practice.

Less than two hours after being thumped by Boston, the Rockets were on their way to New Orleans for a showdown against another one of the Western Conference's leaders. The Hornets are a 1/2-game behind the Los Angeles Lakers and Rockets for the top spot in the West.

With Houston still vying for playoff positioning, the Rockets don't want their first setback in almost two months to become a skid.

"We're going on the road now," McGrady said. "This is not a letdown by any means. We lost a game. We were on a hell of a run, but the streak is now over. We got to move onto the next game."

Still, the Rockets could appreciate what they accomplished over the past two months.

Even after their early-season struggles and losing Yao Ming to season-ending foot surgery, the Rockets strung together the second-longest winning streak in NBA history.

They just didn't have an answer for an opponent for the first time in almost two months.

"The streak means a lot," Alston said. "Our names will be mentioned with some Hall of Famers and that great team that won 33 in a row. A lot of those players are in the Hall of Fame. A lot of us won't be there. But the next time a team goes on a streak like that, they'll have to catch us before they catch the Lakers."