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Game Day: Rockets at Celtics

Analysis and observations from the Rockets' 104-92 win over the Boston Celtics

  • Rockets vs. Celtics
    Dwight Howard records 32 points and 11 rebounds, James Harden and Jeremy Lin each add 16 points as the Rockets defeat the Celtics.
  • Caspi to Howard
    Dwight Howard rolls off his defender and throws down the alley-oop pass from Omri Casspi.
  • Rockets vs. Celtics: First half
    Dwight Howard has 14 points, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons are each adding nine points as the Rockets lead the Celtics by nine at the half.
  • Harden Denies Green
    James Harden strips the ball from Jeff Green's hands on his way to the bucket.
  • Harden Fakes and Slams
    James Harden gets Jordan Crawford off his feef with pump fake then drives to the cup for the two-handed flush.

BOSTON - Analysis and observations from before, during and after Houston’s matchup with the Boston Celtics:

The ball zipped. Bodies moved. The floor was balanced.

This was the kind of basketball the Rockets envisioned last summer when they put together a team considered to be a title contender. This was the kind of basketball they have shown themselves capable of playing at various times this season. And this was the kind of basketball that has occasionally eluded them during significant chunks of the last few weeks.

To be sure, tonight's 104-92 win over Boston was not a perfect performance, but it most definitely represented a step forward for a team supremely confident that its best is still yet to come. Chandler Parsons returned and resumed his role as the lubricant that makes the Rockets' offensive engine purr. Jeremy Lin attacked the Celtics' early, often and relentlessly, consistently generating quality looks for both himself and his teammates. Terrence Jones was beastly on the boards. James Harden's shot was off, but his energy, bounce and the mere perpetual threat of his existence on the floor still allowed him to make a significant impact. And Dwight dominated, pure and simple.

There were wobbles here and there. The fourth quarter got interesting as Houston's 20-point lead began to dissipate, but that's not an unusual occurrence on the road in the NBA. And to be sure, this is how the Rockets should play against the likes of a Boston team that has now lost nine in a row and 12 of its last 13 games. 

None of that, however, should diminish what Houston accomplished tonight. There will be time for them to prove themselves against the league's elite soon enough. For now, it should suffice that the Rockets produced a preponderance of film that will serve as a welcome reminder of how they must play. As was the case Saturday night against the Wizards, the second and third quarters of this game were master classes in disruptive D and explosive, unselfish offense.

This was an important and necessary step closer to what Houston had envisioned so many months ago. The ball popped. The pace pulsed. And the points flowed forth. This was the kind of team Houston must be. 

POST-GAME OBSERVATIONS

- The opening period of tonight’s contest turned into the Avery Bradley show. Boston’s high-energy guard stole the spotlight while shooting 6-of-8 from the field on his way to recording 14 first quarter points. He knocked down 3s, drained long 2s and in general made himself an absolute menace on both ends of the floor. He was, in a word, sensational, and as a result Boston looked nothing like a team that had dropped 11 of its past 12 games. The Rockets, meanwhile, scuffled in their attempts to score, connecting on less than 30 percent of their field goal attempts.

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Put those two things together and what have you got: a 27-19 Celtics’ lead after the opening period of play.

- The script flipped as soon the second quarter began, however, and the expected Rockets’ dominance started much as it did Saturday night against the Wizards: with the club’s second unit providing the spark that ignited Houston’s best stretch of the game. This time, however, it came with a twist. Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones joined the likes of Aaron Brooks, Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia, and that quintet wasted little time making its mark upon the proceedings. Parsons, scoreless in his first quarter back after missing the previous three games due to injury, rapidly returned to his playmaking best while scoring nine points in the period and dishing out two assists. Jones, meanwhile, spent his time devouring seemingly every offensive rebound in sight, grabbing five of the eight offensive boards the Rockets collected as a team in the first half.

"That was really good," said Parsons, who returned to the lineup by producing the kind of numbers - 14 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists - that Rockets fans have come to expect of him on a routine basis. "We were playing really unselfish and nobody cared who scored. We ran the floor hard, we got to the corners, we were cutting great - Omri found us on a couple nice passes - and defensively we knew we were small so we needed to rebound but our work in transition was really good."

Their efforts helped Houston tie the game in short order and when the rest of the starters returned the Rockets’ attack went into overdrive, forcing Boston into a bevy of bad shots and then turning those stops into quality scoring opportunities at the other end, many of which came in transition or early offense. This was Houston in the best incarnation of itself and the results, not surprisingly, bore bountiful fruit as the Rockets hit halftime with a 52-43 lead after a second quarter that saw them outscore the Celtics 33-16.

- The third period brought with it more of the same, with Houston’s starting five showing the kind of collective dominance we hadn’t seen from them in quite some time. James Harden wasn’t operating at peak efficiency tonight, but every other member of the team’s starting unit played exquisite basketball in the period. Jeremy Lin ran the show. Jones and Parsons kept punishing the Celtics in unmerciful fashion. And all the while, Dwight Howard looked like he was resuming his game of one-on-one against the overmatched 10-year-old boy in D.C., such was the brute, overpowering force of his interior superiority. By the time the quarter came to a close, Howard had racked up 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting, and Houston looked well on its way to collecting its second straight win on the road.

How good was the period from a Rockets’ perspective? This in-game tweet from Rockets’ radio play-by-play voice Craig Ackerman summed it up thusly:

 

 

Oh, and the two points Houston scored that didn’t come from the paint or from 3 – those came at the free throw line. That’ll do, Rockets. That’ll do.

- Things weren’t quite so rosy for Houston in the final frame, however. Jerryd Bayless, typically the magic elixir capable of curing whatever ails the Rockets, reversed course, caught fire, poured in 15 fourth quarter points and ignited a comeback of sorts as the Celtics managed to trim Houston’s 20-point lead down to as little as seven at one point.

To be sure, the specter of Saturday’s blown lead had to be hovering somewhere in the vicinity of the Rockets’ collective consciousness as Boston began to creep ever closer. But at no point did Houston’s players ever seem to panic. Jeremy Lin delivered multiple big layups and a beautiful left-handed pass to Harden who calmly hit a 3 to beat the shot clock, silencing the increasingly cocksure Celtics fans in the process. And when Boston busted out the always-entertaining Hack-a-Howard strategy, Houston’s big man knocked down 5-of-10 from the charity stripe, a mark that will get the job done in those situations far more often than not.

“I thought Jeremy had a really good game,” McHale said of his point guard who finished with 16 points and 9 assists. “I thought he pushed the ball, I thought he broke down their defense early, got on top of them before they could get set. That’s when we’re at our best when we’re on top of them before they get set. He made some nice passes and he did a good job of getting Dwight involved. We had some really good ball movement, and did some really good stuff out there, getting back to how we have to play basketball. It’s nice, we just have to keep doing it.”

So sure, a few anxious moments were experienced, but that’s typical of life in the NBA, right? The only thing that truly matters: the Rockets rolled to a 104-92 win as Howard led the way with 32 points on a night when all five starters achieved double-figure scoring.

Houston now moves to 25-14 on the season and will wrap up its four-game road trip in the Big Easy Wednesday night when they take on the injury-ravaged New Orleans Pelicans.

QUOTES

Head Coach Kevin McHale

Re: Second Quarter Ball Movement: “We are getting better at it, we have some good cutting we have some good moving, the guys are playing with each other well. Three’s went in we were able to move the ball and guys could anticipate the ball coming to them so they get their feet set.”

Re: 4th quarter composure: “We are getting a lot of experience on that, getting a lead and then giving it up. So we are getting better at that.

Re Lin’s game: “I thought Jeremy had a really good game I thought he pushed the ball, I thought he broke down their defense early and gotten on top of them before they could set. That’s when we are at the best, when we are on top before they could set. We had some really good ball movement. Getting back to how we have to play basketball.”

Chandler Parsons

“That wasn’t perfect by any means.  We didn’t play great in the 4th qtr. Bayless hit some tough shots.  We had to change up some things and make adjustments, but good players are going to do that, and he got hot a bit, but we’ve just got to continue to run our offense.  We’ve got confidence in Dwight to make those free throws when they start doing that, so I thought it was a real good win for us, but it wasn’t perfect.”

Re: his knee: “It was really good tonight.  I thought it was going to be a lot more sore.  I’ve been doing a lot, a lot, a lot, of rehab so I didn’t think I was going to play that many minutes.  It was good.  It didn’t get cold sitting too long and it felt good.”

Jeremy Lin

Re: Seemed like more poise in 4th than in Washington: “I think for us, we just wanted to doing that, and just having Washington in the back of our minds, up 25 or whatever, and going down 5, we made sure we were like, “we don’t want to be there again” coach was telling us, and I guess it helped us.”

As lead slipped away what was going through your mind: “I think for us, stops.  I mean we’ve got to get stops.  You’ve got to dry up whatever was working for them.  I guess it was a Brandon Bass Jerryd Bayless pick and roll so we put Chandler on Jarryd, put TJ in and switched the screens, and just gave them a little bit more length, and I thought that was a good decision on the coaches.”

Boston Celtics Head Coach Brad Stevens

Re assessment of tonight’s game: “You know, I told our guys afterwards, I don’t want to be the team that talks about the travel and then having to play.  I mean, that’s part of it.  I thought we were good early, and I thought we were good late, and in the middle we were dominated, really the better part of the second and third quarter.  So, I thought we were good enough to be competitive in both of those first and fourth, but obviously the game was won in the second and third.”

Re decision to repeatedly foul Dwight Howard: “I said (on TV) just now, I would probably support a change in that, that wouldn’t allow that, would call it intentional or whatever you want to call it; call it like it would be called in the last two minutes.  But because it’s a rule and usually if a guy’s making one out of two it makes you think twice.  To his credit, he made one almost – maybe every time up to the foul line.  But we were scoring, and so we were getting a plus-one almost, in about 10 or 15 seconds off the clock, for the better part of three or four possessions.  And then we went dry, and that’s when the two-minute mark hit anyways and we really couldn’t do it any more.  To their credit, too, they left him in, and to his credit, he knocked them in.  Knocked one out of two in and just kind of kept that distance what it was.”

Re Jerryd Bayless’ contributions: “He was good defensively most of the night, I thought, and provides a spark obviously offensively in a lot of the same ways that Avery (Bradley) provides a spark with his ability to pull up and hit tough jump shots.  And I thought he gave us a chance – as did that whole second group; I thought they were all playing pretty darn hard there.  And you know, a lot of those guys haven’t played as much and so for them to get that chance and they probably were a little fresher than the first one and to go after it, I thought it made a lot of sense to let him go after it.”

Re how much is Bayless just starting to fit in: “I think he’s fitting in well.  I think that he’s been embraced by our group; we haven’t had any collective success since he’s joined but the attitudes for the most part have been good and he’s been accepted very well.”

Re having Jeff Green make an impact even on an off shooting night: “Well, I thought he was excellent offensively the last two games, and I thought the first possession tonight he was guarding like a really, really good defender guards.  And again, I don’t want to make excuses for him, and at the same time I don’t want to assume anything but he just didn’t have it.  And that’s okay.  And that’s why other guys are on the team: to step up and to fill that void when that happens.  I thought some other guys did a good job, but clearly he wants to play better than that.  But at the same time, he kept us in the last two in a lot of ways.”

Re does he see any positives from the last week: “There’s all kinds of positives, but they don’t make you feel any better at night, and that’s the reality of it.  I mean, this is hard to go through, this is unenjoyable to go through, but it doesn’t mean there’s not growth on some – it’s not consistent all the time, but it doesn’t mean there’s not growth on the individuals’ parts.”

Avery Bradley

Re: Seeing Jerryd Bayless & MarShon Brooks tonight: “It was amazing. It just shows what kind of pro MarShon is to come in and play as hard as he did and as well as he did. They almost brought us back. They brought that energy off the bench and that was really big for us.”

Jerryd Bayless

Re: Find self fitting into offense: “Definitely. The first couple games I was just trying to feel every body out, I’m still continuing to do that in the spots where I can get things going for myself and the team. Just trying to do that is my main focus.”

Re: Getting in front of Garden crowd: “Pretty cool. Last night I went to the practice facility for the first time as well and just kind of playing and working out under the banners makes you go a little bit hardcore. It’s a really cool opportunity to be able to play and be here.”

Re: Coming to team in middle of stretch: “It’s tough, but I’ll be ok. These guys are great, everybody has been really helpful from the team to the organization, everybody and its been a great experience so far. I’m looking forward to continuing to be a part and being a Celtic.”

Jared Sullinger

Re: Staying positive after this: “I don’t know. We’re competitive and when you’re competitive you always find away to stay positive. Just try to find a way to win. We are fighting everyday.”

Re: Positives that you are trying to find: “This team is fighting to the end. As you can see we fight every game, we are just coming up short. Have to fight harder the next game and come out with a W.”

Re: Some games have won haven’t played well as the games lost per coach - agree?: “I totally agree with that. We’ve been playing these past four games and this team doesn’t quit. We are going to find a way to win.”

Re: Coming home from long trip – fatigue: “We don’t use excuses around here. Its not something we can hide behind. We are fighting, we are playing hard and fatigue is out the door, you can’t use that as an excuse.”

PREVIEW

The Basics:

Houston Rockets (24-14) at Boston Celtics (13-25)

Point Differential:

Boston: -3.6 (NBA rank: 23rd)

Houston: +3.3 (NBA rank: 9th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Boston: 99.1 (23rd)

Houston: 107.4 (4th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Boston: 103.5 (t-17th)

Houston: 102.4 (13th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Boston: 95.89 (18th)

Houston: 98.03 (8th)

Four Factors:

Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that’s adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):

Boston: 48.5% (19th)

Houston: 53.0% (3rd)

Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):

Boston: 16.5 (24th)

Houston: 16.7 (28th)

Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)

Boston: 49.5% (17th); offensive rebound rate: 25.7% (16th); defensive rebound rate: 72.8% (24th)

Houston: 51.8% (6th); offensive rebound rate: 27.1% (8th); defensive rebound rate: 73.2% (23rd)

Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):

Boston: .257 (t-17th)

Houston: .402 (1st)

The Rockets enjoyed one of their most dominating performances of the season the last time these two teams faced off as Houston cruised to a 109-85 win back on November 19 at Toyota Center. The Rockets began that game on an 18-1 run, ended the first quarter owning a 40-18 edge, and never looked back on their way to crushing the overwhelmed Celtics. Houston owned a 60-30 edge in paint points and a 23-7 advantage on the fast break that evening. At halftime, the Rockets’ effective field-goal percentage was an eye-popping 83.3 percent. You get the idea.

Not coincidentally, that night was also one of the last in which the Rockets’ roster has been anywhere even remotely close to healthy and whole. No one outside of Houston is shedding any tears for the various ailments that have wrecked havoc with the team’s depth and subsequent consistency – especially given the league-wide outbreak of serious injuries that have laid waste to so many teams’ best laid plans – but there’s also no denying the fact that the Rockets are right to believe their best basketball still lies before them assuming there is in fact a light at the end of the injury tunnel (which is not always a safe assumption, of course).

To that end, the expected return of Chandler Parsons tonight represents a significant step in the right direction. His presence on the floor has been acutely missed when he’s been unable to dress due to injury this season; not just because the Rockets are then forced to find a way to try to replace his scoring and shooting, but also because his off-ball movement is so vital to making Houston's offense really hum (Parsons ranks among the league’s top players in both distance traveled per game ((2.7 miles)) and average speed ((4.3 miles per hour)), according to the NBA’s player tracking data).

“He’ll cut and move from different areas to open the floor for other people,” said Houston head coach Kevin McHale when asked about Parsons’ impact this morning following the club’s shootaround. “That’s the big things we’ve got to get a lot better at: opening space on the floor for others just by making unselfish cuts and moving. That seems to come and go like the weather with us, but we’re working on it.

“We haven’t had our team together much with injuries and everything else so we have a long way to go and I’m excited because our ceiling is really high. A lot of teams right now are just trying to maintain from this point of the season on – we really have a lot of room to grow so that’s exciting for us.”

Know Thy Enemy

- The Celtics were 12-14 when they hit mid-December – and then they promptly hit a wall. Boston has gone 1-11 since that time, posting a point differential of -9.8 during that stretch with breakdowns occurring on both ends of the floor. Since December 18 the Celtics have scored at a bottom-five rate (97.7 points per 100 possessions) while their defense has hemorrhaged points at a clip (108.4 points per 100 possessions) that would place them dead last in the league. Related to that last point: Boston’s defensive rebound rate during that stretch (71.5 percent) would rank 29th for the season. 

One thing to keep in mind, however: The Celtics’ last three games – all of which took place on the road – saw them come very close to upsetting Western Conference powers Portland, Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers.

- One of the fundamental tenets of Boston’s defensive strategy: vigilantly guard the 3-point arc. The Celtics want to run opposing shooters off the line; a point manifested in the fact that Boston gives up the fourth-fewest number of 3s per game while opponents are hitting just 34 percent of those long-range attempts – the sixth-best lowest mark in the league in that category. The Celtics have been especially diligent defending spot-ups, conceding just .905 points per possession on such plays (the league’s median average is .965), placing them third in the NBA according to Synergy Sports.

- Speaking of spot-ups, Boston’s Avery Bradley places in the 95th percentile in that category, averaging better than 1.3 points per possession on such plays while hitting more than 50 percent of his spot-up attempts. Here’s the thing, though: the vast majority of his damage is done from the corners. 83 of his 106 3-point attempts this season come from the corners where he’s connecting at a rate of 41 percent.

- Given the Celtics’ struggles to score, the last thing the Rockets want to do tonight is allow easy points on put-backs and second-chance opportunities – a season-long bugaboo for Houston seeing as how only the Suns and Lakers have conceded more second-chance points per game (after adjusting for pace) than has Houston.

The Celtics are merely average when it comes to second chance scoring, but keep a close eye on Jared Sullinger. Boston’s burly second-year forward boasts an offensive rebound rate (11.9 percent) that places him in the league’s top-10 among players who average at least 25 minutes of playing time per game.

In the spotlight

What might Terrence Jones have in store for an encore after that beastly 19-point, 17-rebound, 3-block performance he produced against Washington Saturday night? Those numbers will obviously be difficult to duplicate but it’s worth remembering that the last time Jones faced the Celtics, he posted a similarly monstrous line of 24 points, 9 boards, 2 blocks and a 10-of-12 shooting performance from the field.

Something else to consider: The University of Kentucky product has played his best basketball this season when lining up alongside Chandler Parsons. So far during the 2013-14 campaign, Jones is hitting better than 52 percent of his field goal attempts when the two former SEC players share the floor, as opposed to shooting just a shade over 44 percent when Parsons is on the bench.

Injury Update

Omer Asik (knee) and Patrick Beverley (hand) are out.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.