By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics snapped their three-game losing streak on Wednesday night with their best win of the season.
While the effort was far from perfect, with the defense still missing for large stretches, the Celtics finally beat one of the NBA’s top teams with a 120-109 win over the Houston Rockets at the TD Garden. Led by Isaiah Thomas (who else?) and his 38 points, the Celtics rinsed away the horrible taste that was left over from Tuesday night’s embarrassing loss to the Wizards.
“We had a three-game losing streak, a really good team in Houston coming here with a really good player like James Harden,” said Thomas. “You could say that was the biggest win [of the season], and hopefully it gives us even more confidence and we can find a rhythm and keep playing this way.”
“[Tuesday’s loss] set a fire under us. It kind of got everybody riled up and ready to play today,” said guard Marcus Smart, who came off the bench with Brad Stevens switching up his starting five. “That’s what we need. We talked about our problem with defense. We were lacking emotion playing with it, but we had that emotion tonight.”
The Celtics kept their emotions in check, and didn’t allow some early frustration to turn into sloppiness on the floor. With some horrendous officiating in the first half (causing bad call connoisseur Tommy Heinsohn to grunt and grumble for nearly a minute straight on the TV broadcast), Boston was hit with three technical fouls in the final four minutes of the second quarter. They were behind 58-52 when they went into the locker room at halftime.
But things turned around quickly in the second half. Al Horford was a monster in the third quarter with six points, two assists, a pair of steals and a block. He helped the C’s erase that halftime deficit and go up by as much as eight before Houston took an 88-86 lead into the final frame.
Horford finished with 20 points and nine assists in one of his best performances as a member of the Celtics. But we all know the fourth quarter is Isaiah Time, and Wednesday was no different.
Thomas put in 13 points in the fourth, breaking up a 98-98 tie with 5:12 left on a pair of free throws following a Harden flagrant-1 foul. He hit a nice step-back jumper on the ensuing possession and followed it up with a beautiful driving hook shot to give Boston a 104-98 lead. It helped spark a 13-2 run by the Celtics, and they never looked back.
The Celtics won the battle on the glass, 56-41, and displayed some phenomenal ball movement with 33 assists on 47 baskets. They played some great defense down the stretch as well, a part of their game that has been missing this season. Harden still got his 30 points, but he shot just 6-for-18 with 12 assists and seven turnovers in his 37 minutes on the floor.
The Celtics finally showed some toughness against a heavyweight opponent, providing a much-needed boost of confidence after a rough seven-day stretch.
“We know we have it; it’s just a matter of doing it,” Thomas said of the team’s toughness. “I think tonight we just played like we’re capable of playing on both ends of the floor, and I think the next step with this team, we just have to be more consistent at doing that and building that identity.”
Stevens, who was hit with one of those technicals towards the end of the first half, praise his team for keeping their composure one night after it seemed like they were on the brink of losing it.
“I thought our guys stayed together through the good times and the bad times,” he said. “I thought they were tough. I thought we got stops when we needed to. And obviously, I thought the execution and the shot-making in the fourth quarter was outstanding.”
Making last week’s home losses to the Knicks and Trail Blazers even more frustrating is the fact the Celtics now sit just half-a-game behind the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference standings. Had they held off just one of those hiccups Boston would have leapfrogged Toronto, and would have been just 2.5 games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Wednesday night was evidence that the Celtics can put it all together against a top opponent, something they hadn’t done this season. They did it by playing strong defense (at least in the fourth quarter), playing as a team on offense and keeping their composure when the going got tough. Far too often this season that has been the exception and not the norm. It’s up to the players to make sure Wednesday’s effort flips that trend.