By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics got outplayed and out-muscled by the Rockets on Tuesday night, and saw their seven-game win streak come to an end in Houston. While Boston players acknowledged the team’s lack of physicality against the Rockets, they also weren’t too happy with all the free throws awarded to Houston’s star players.
Marcus Smart was the most vocal in the Boston locker room, making his frustrations with the officiating crystal clear. The Rockets had a 42-to-25 advantage at the charity stripe, and they made the most of those freebies, hitting 37 of them. James Harden (18 attempts) and Russell Westbrook (13) did the most damage at the line, scoring 27 of their 78 points at the free-throw line.
“I don’t think I need to say anything on that,” Smart said of the difference in free throws between the two teams. “It’s a big discrepancy.”
While the numbers were off, Boston did bite on several of Houston’s pump fakes during the fourth quarter that proved to be costly. That being said, there were a few instances when the Celtics were whistled for a foul for simply being near either Harden or Westbrook.
Jaylen Brown was whistled for a phantom foul on a Harden three attempt with 5:31 to go, right after Jayson Tatum had cut it to a two-point game on a breakaway jam off a Harden turnover. The NBA’s leading scorer hit all three to put Houston back up by five.
Harden was back at the line for three more freebies less than two minutes later, when Kemba Walker smacked his arm as he attempted another shot from beyond the arc with 3:09 to go. Again, Harden drained all three, lifting Houston’s lead to 111-98. That was the second time Kemba sent a shooter to the line for three free throws in the fourth quarter.
The whistles clearly frustrated Walker throughout Tuesday’s game, as he finished just 5-of-17 for 14 points. He didn’t want to bash the officiating, because he didn’t want that to come back and bite him in the wallet.
“I would love to tell you a little bit more about it, but I’m not trying to lose no money,” said Walker. “I don’t want to say the wrong thing.”
Walker admitted that as a leader of the team, he has to do a better job keeping his emotions in check. He tried to urge Smart to follow a similar game plan with his own postgame comments, but Smart was not having that. The guard was miffed with the quick whistles throughout the game, which didn’t allow the Celtics — or Smart — to play their usual brand of physical defense.
“The way the game is being called, we didn’t know how physical we could be, because when we were physical we were being called, so it kind of made us hesitant and put us on our heels. Anytime you’re fearful of fouling, that’s kind of what happened,” Smart explained. “But we’ll get better at it. They did a good job of being physical and really owning that game and taking it to us.”
Smart has a case. He was elbowed in the face by Westbrook on a drive at the end of the third quarter, but was the one whistled for the foul. That call stood up even after Brad Stevens challenged it at the urging of Smart. He also had a clean block on Westbrook midway through the second quarter called a foul — because it was Westbrook driving to the rim.
After watching Westbrook and Harden gets calls for 48 minutes, Smart was incredulous that Boston’s own star players aren’t getting the same — or similar — treatment.
“I mean, we have Jayson Tatum, we have Kemba Walker, All-Stars. We have Jaylen Brown, potential All-Star. We have Gordon Hayward, was an All-Star. We got star guys, too,” he vented. “If that’s the case, we should be getting the same calls that those stars are getting.”
Smart himself would like a little more leeway on the defensive end.
“First team all defense, one of the best defensive players in the league, I would think so,” he said. “Up for defensive player of the year, they’re talking, but obviously not.”
Smart isn’t one to make excuses, so Tuesday night’s officiating clearly got under his skin. It led to some sloppy play up and down the Boston roster, as the C’s committed 18 turnovers in the game. Mix that with the number of times they sent the Rockets to the line (whether aided by the officials or not), and the Celtics didn’t give themselves much of a chance to win the game.
Despite some aggravating circumstances, the Celtics still put up a fight in one of the toughest places to play in the NBA. But they need to be a lot better at keeping their emotions in check, especially during some of the more frustrating moments against the best players in the game.