The Celtics have played well enough recently that they did not necessarily need an opponent to be an elixir. But the injury-ravaged Rockets have been handing out boosts of confidence for several weeks, and the Celtics certainly were not going to turn one down.
On Sunday night, Boston overcame a sleepy start and handed the Rockets their 16th loss in a row, 134-107. Jaylen Brown had 24 points and Jayson Tatum added 23 to lead the Celtics, who snapped a seven-game road losing skid. Boston shot 55.4 percent from the field overall and 48.6 from beyond the 3-point line.
Observations from the game:
▪ Celtics coach Brad Stevens has said several times recently that the Celtics must do more to get Kemba Walker involved in the offense, especially early in games. There was an effort to do that Sunday, but Walker was unable to find a rhythm. He had a pair of quick turnovers and missed all six of his first-half shots. He was the only Celtics player who struggled during an explosive 66-point half.
That slog did not last, however. The Celtics ran a play for Walker on their first possession of the second half and he scored inside. Then the dam broke. Walker poured in three 3-pointers over the next 90 seconds and came up with a steal before feeding Tatum for a layup, helping the Celtics stretch their lead to 79-57.
“We wanted to give him a chance to attack downhill,” Stevens said, referring to the first play of the second half. “His energy was great all night and he was loud and he was engaged, and then I thought the game honored him by letting the ball go through the net a few times to start the third quarter. We always talk about the game rewards you if you approach it the right way and he does that for us, so it’s good to see that.”
It was a bit surprising to see Walker still on the floor in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, when Boston held a 32-point lead.
▪ Marcus Smart remains on a minutes restriction after missing six weeks because of a left calf strain. He has come off the bench in the last two games and provided a jolt of energy both times. On Sunday he checked in five minutes into the game and instantly drew a charge and then hit a 3-pointer. During his six-minute stint he helped flip a seven-point deficit into a three-point lead.
Stevens was asked whether he might continue to bring Smart off the bench even after his playing time is no longer limited, and he pointed out that it would not be so bad to have that jolt at the start of a game, either.
“We gave up like 21 points in the first five minutes,” Stevens said. “I think we could have used that energy a little bit earlier. So I think that we’ll just use that energy whenever we can use it. I anticipate that he will be back in the starting lineup when he gets clearance to play more.”
▪ Robert Williams continued his ascension. The third-year big man was 7 for 7 from the field and had 16 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks in just 19 minutes, 15 seconds. Yes, the Rockets were absolutely overmatched in the post, but Williams continues to show why he deserves a larger opportunity. There were several highlight plays, but his acrobatic third-quarter tip-in on a difficult alley-oop pass from Smart stood out.
Williams missed most of last season with a hip injury and has experienced some lingering soreness this year. So the team will be cautious with his playing time. But on Sunday Stevens hinted that a larger role could eventually be in store.
“I just think we can make it so that he can play more, and more and more as the season goes on,” he said. “Again, the density of the games and his history, especially last year, we’re just being conservative. But he’s getting a lot better, you can see that. And he’s able to play a little bit longer stints than he has in the past, because he plays really hard when he’s out there. So that’s all encouraging.
“Rob, obviously, gives us an upside there that I think we just need to keep building and building and building.”
Williams, for one, said he is ready for an expanded opportunity.
“To be honest, obviously I want as many minutes as I can get,” he said. “My minutes ramping up is just a dream come true. I’ve just got to lock in more.”
▪ Almost all of the Celtics’ opponents recently have been missing at least one of their best players. But the Rockets’ absences were at a different level. Houston was without leading scorers Christian Wood and John Wall, as well as key rotation players Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Danuel House, who each average more than 27 minutes per game. This was essentially a G League team and Victor Oladipo. Houston had just nine players in uniform.
Still, the Rockets made things at least slightly uneasy for Boston at the start thanks to some hot shooting and lukewarm Celtics defense. Boston fell behind early and trailed, 28-20, late in the first quarter before the second unit sparked a massive 34-8 surge. During one stretch, the Rockets went 5 minutes, 27 seconds without a basket.
“I was glad we were able to kind of withstand that early onslaught and play well the rest of the game,” Stevens said.
▪ The Rockets did not throw traps and double-teams at Tatum and Brown, and both players seemed to enjoy having some extra room to navigate in the first half. Brown, in particular, got to the rim consistently with some nice stop-and-go and hesitation moves and had 21 points before the break.
“My team needed me to make shots,” he said.