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Rockets 104, Celtics 92

Celtics’ losing streak hits 9 games

Rockets too tough in return to Boston

The frustration shows on the face of Jared Sullinger as the Celtics are about to lose for the ninth straight time.

JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

The frustration shows on the face of Jared Sullinger as the Celtics are about to lose for the ninth straight time.

The Patriots own the locals’ attention these days, a byproduct of being one Mile-High win from the Super Bowl.

But the Celtics don’t mind being out of the spotlight.

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In fact, at the moment, they should be thankful.

The Celtics lost their season-worst ninth straight game Monday night, falling, 104-92, to the Houston Rockets at TD Garden, where one Celtics fan wore a paper bag on his head.

That skid is the team’s longest since losing a franchise-record 18 straight during the 2006-07 season. The Celtics (13-26) now have lost twice as many games as they’ve won, along with losing 12 of their last 13 overall.

One has to dig pretty deep to find any silver linings for the Celtics right now.

“There’s all kinds of positives, but they don’t make you feel any better at night,” said coach Brad Stevens. “That’s the reality of it. This is hard to go through. This is unenjoyable to go through. But it doesn’t mean there’s not growth. It’s not consistent all the time, but it doesn’t mean there’s not growth on individual’s parts.”

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The Celtics were coming off a winless five-game trip against Western Conference teams, and, as the NBA saying goes, the toughest game of a long trip is the first game back at home.

The Rockets, especially Dwight Howard, were tough for a Boston team that looked fatigued, even if no one wanted to admit it.

“We don’t use excuses around here,” said Jared Sullinger, who returned to the starting lineup and had 8 points and 10 rebounds.

“It’s not an excuse,” he said. “It’s not something you can hide behind. We’re fighting, we’re playing hard. Failure is out the door. We can’t use that as an excuse.”

The Celtics, again, played hard.

They led by 9 early, trailed by 20 in the second half, and made a game of it toward the very end, with newly acquired guard Jerryd Bayless scoring 15 of his 17 points in the final stanza of his first game as a Celtic at the Garden.

The Celtics cut a 19-point third-quarter deficit to 7 in the fourth, but, as is often the case, they ran out of time.

“We were good early, and I thought we were good late, and in the middle we were dominated,” Stevens said.

Added Kris Humphries, “A lot of teams can play well for a quarter or two quarters. It’s about playing well throughout the game and, more than anything, finishing games well and stopping people from making big runs on you.”

Howard feasted on the undersized Celtics, scoring a game-high 32 points on 11-for-17 shooting. He also grabbed 11 rebounds and went to the free throw line 14 times in the fourth quarter as the Celtics hacked him over and over, trying to extend the game.

Howard made 10 of 18 overall from the charity stripe, including six in the fourth.

“To their credit, too, they left him in, and to his credit, he knocked them in,” Stevens said.

Howard had 12 points in the third quarter, including 8 in a row at one point, and the Rockets (25-14) opened the quarter on a 16-6 run to take control.

The other four Rockets starters scored in double figures, and Harvard product Jeremy Lin finished with 16 points and nine assists.

The Rockets outscored the Celtics, 58-36, in the paint, seemingly getting whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, even though the Celtics grabbed more rebounds (50 to 46) and had more second-chance points (20 to 10).

The Celtics led early behind hot shooting from Avery Bradley, who scored 14 points of his team-high 24 points in the opening quarter.

But the rest of the Celtics starters scored just 29 points on 10-for-39 shooting, and Jeff Green (4 points) sat for the fourth quarter.

Green said it was because of a bruised shoulder he suffered in the first quarter. Stevens never mentioned an injury, only saying that Green “just didn’t have it. And that’s OK.”

In the throes of such a slump, Stevens mentioned how his team has played better recently, though it has nothing to show for it.

“We were a lot better the last three games than we were in a lot of the games that we won,” Stevens said. “This is the hard part, about this juggling act, because it is miserable to lose, like we have, in a row.

“But we were a lot better in the three games before tonight than in some of the ones we’ve won, and we have to keep that in mind. Again, that’s kind of where I have to stay reasonably objective in all this.”

Not all the players saw it through such rose-colored lenses.

Humphries was asked what positives he has seen from this team recently.

“This team, meaning, us?” he asked.

Green was asked the same question, over a period of say, the last week and a half.

“The last week and a half?” Green said.

And Gerald Wallace, who is never one to mince words, was asked if he has seen anything positive – anything at all.

“All I’ve seen is excuses,” he said.

Baxter Holmes can be reached at baxter.holmes@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.

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