Celtics Out-Smart Rockets in Crazy Finish

BOSTON – Frustration was mounting for James Harden Thursday night as his Houston Rockets let a 26-point lead over the Boston Celtics dwindle all the way down to one at TD Garden. C’s guard Marcus Smart could sense the negative emotions brewing inside his superstar counterpart, so he got under Harden’s skin and forced him to choke away the game.

Despite allowing the Celtics to storm back from a massive deficit, Houston still had the game in its hands with 7.3 seconds remaining. The Rockets were ahead 98-97 at that moment, and had possession of the ball with one of the league’s best closers on their side.

Smart, however, got into Harden’s head and tricked him into committing two consecutive offensive fouls – both occurring before Houston could even inbound the ball. This gave Boston two extra possessions that it never should have had, and it was enough to lift the C’s over the Rockets, 99-98, in thrilling fashion.

Initially, all Houston had to do was pass the ball to Harden at the 7.3-second mark, have the Celtics foul and send him to the free throw line, where he had converted 15-of-15 attempts on the night, get a stop on the defensive end, and the game would have been over.

But they never even accomplished Step 1, thanks to Smart’s suffocating off-ball defense on Harden.

“We were just trying to deny him the ball,” said Smart, who had held Harden scoreless on seven shot attempts throughout the game. “When you get up in him and you give him only one way to go, it’s hard; it becomes frustrating … We were trying to make it real uncomfortable for him the whole night, and he just lost it and gave me a little nudge.”

That nudge sent Smart sprawling across the parquet floor, which resulted in a whistle.

The Celtics, who had just brought the score within one point on a Jayson Tatum layup, retained possession of the ball with no timeouts remaining.

Coach Brad Stevens barked out a play from Boston’s sideline telling them to get Al Horford the ball in the low-post. Terry Rozier dished the inbound pass to Horford on the elbow, who then backed down Tarik Black and swished a go-ahead hook shot with 3.7 seconds remaining.

But the game wasn’t over yet. The Celtics knew that 3.7 seconds was plenty of time for a speedster like Harden to race up the court and get off a good look or draw contact and get to the free throw line.

The only problem was that Harden was still boiling over the previous call. He caught Horford’s make before it fell to the floor, gave Smart a shove, and then bumped him in the chest with the ball. No whistle was blown there, but Smart knew that if he played his cards right, he could get Harden to commit another foul before Houston could inbound the pass.

So, the Celtics’ defensive stalwart hit the replay button.

“He’s bumping me, chest-to-chest and I’m just standing in my spot ready to play defense again,” Smart recalled. “My hands are up, and then once again he does the same thing; he loses it again and the ref was right there again and he called it.”

Meanwhile, Boston’s players couldn’t believe what had just unfolded in front of their eyes.

“That just shows how crazy he is,” Rozier said of Smart’s antics. “A guy like that, he’s special. It’s not the first time I’ve seen him do things like that, but he’s just crazy. And you need a crazy guy like that.”

With Boston retaining possession once again, Smart fed the inbound pass to Horford, who was fouled by Black with 2.0 seconds on the game clock. Horford missed the first attempt, and then purposely clanked the second off the front of the rim to give the Rockets limited options for a potential game-winner. Sure, enough, Eric Gordon would miss a 75-foot Hail Mary attempt, allowing the Celtics to walk off with a thrilling comeback win.

It likely never would’ve shaped out in Boston’s favor if it weren’t for the way Smart guarded Harden – with body and mind – during the closing moments.

“I play defense with passion,” said Smart, who personally forced Harden to commit four turnovers over the course of the contest. “Defense wins games, and that was proven tonight.”