One of the most refreshing things about this year’s Celtics team has been their ability to not let frustrating moments and mounting deficits rattle them. When opportunities have arisen for guys to point fingers and place blame upon one another, or to simply call it a night and mentally check out of a game that’s getting out of hand, they have instead responded — in most cases at least — with the resiliency, toughness and composure that last year’s team so obviously lacked. Unfortunately, last night in Houston was one of the rare moments in which that wasn’t the case.
For the first 43 minutes of the game or so last night, the Celtics displayed exactly what I just mentioned. When James Harden and Russell Westbrook started catching fire in the 3rd quarter, scoring a combined 27 points and turning what had been a two-point Celtics lead entering the quarter into a twelve-point Rockets lead, the Celtics didn’t lay down and die. Instead, they locked in, bared their teeth, and got the deficit back down to seven by the end of the quarter. They did this several more times when the Rockets started to pull away, stopping the bleeding before it got to double digits and keeping themselves within striking distance. In fact, I may have jinxed them by noting this with about five or six minutes left in the game:
The Celtics could only keep their calm for so long, however, as Houston’s antics and a tough whistle finally broke their spirits down the stretch. On one hand, it’s hard to blame them for allowing the frustration to get to them. When it was all said and done, Harden and Westbrook had combined for 31 free throw attempts, 25 of which had come in the second half, matching Boston’s team total of 25 attempts on the night. On the other hand, while the Celtics were certainly victims of a few questionable calls, most of Houston’s free throws were a result of Boston’s inability to stay on their feet on pump fakes no matter how many times they had already fallen for them throughout the game. They ultimately had nobody but themselves to blame for repeating the same mistake over and over.
If there was one play that essentially broke the Celtics’ backs in the final minutes, it was the following defensive possession in which Jaylen Brown failed to switch onto Russell Westbrook and left him with a wide open path to the rim to push the lead from six to eight.
While the game was still within reach at that point, the energy from both teams told you that it was over. For one of the first and only times this season, Celtics players (Smart and Brown) could be seen bickering and assigning blame upon one another as . As that unfolded, Russell Westbrook jogged up the court with a grin on his face, presumably having heard the boiling over of frustration that his bucket had just caused between the two Celtics teammates. Over the next two minutes that followed, the Rockets extended the lead from eight to fifteen, part of a 17-4 late fourth quarter run that put to bed any hope of a Celtics comeback.
The Celtics will now head back to Boston for one more game on Thursday night before the All-Star Break against a strong Clippers team that they took to overtime in Los Angeles earlier this season. One can only hope that they left their frustration and finger pointing in Houston, but that they take with them the lesson of what happens when they lose their composure like that. Not only is it important for the team to head into the break on a positive note both on and off the court, but also, they will see this Houston team again sooner rather than later as they host them in Boston just over two weeks from today. When they meet again later this month, the Celtics will need to focus on the things that they can control — namely, not biting on Houston’s pump fakes — and not let the things that are out of the control, like the refereeing, get to their heads. It’s a simple idea straight from the Brad Stevens school of philosophy, but it’s one that could ultimately be the difference between this Celtics team reaching their ceiling or falling short when the pressure reaches it’s peak come playoff time.
Photo: David J. Phillip/AP Photo