HOUSTON — The Celtics have learned the hard way this season they cannot take opponents with losing records for granted.
They rolled after a slow start on Sunday night, beating Houston by 27 in a game that wasn’t that close, but six of their 18 losses have come against the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, and Sacramento Kings. Including Atlanta’s win Sunday, those teams are a combined 36 games under .500.
Houston is a franchise in major transition, with the club having traded unhappy All-Stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook; with former Wizards cornerstone John Wall in and out of the lineup with injuries; and with ex-Indiana Pacer Victor Oladipo having turned down a two-year contract extension and appearing to be on the trading block. (Oladipo had 26 to lead Houston on Sunday.)
New coach Stephen Silas walked into an imploding situation for his first NBA job, and he has to put patchwork lineups on the floor. Hence, a 16-game losing streak.
“If you don’t play well, you’ll get beat. We’ve had several examples of that, as most teams do,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “One of the things about [the Rockets] is there’s a lot of guys that play with a great physicality and a lot of guys that play with a great toughness. You have to match that to have a chance to win.
“Every game is worth one. To say the Brooklyn game is more important than the Houston game which is more important than Utah, we’ve got to get as many of those as we can to make the playoffs and be a competitive team once we get there.”
The Celtics are coming off a rare two-day break where they were able to practice Saturday in Houston. That allowed the team to sharpen on fundamentals after having just one day to practice before the second half began Thursday against the Brooklyn Nets.
“We have actually done go-back-to-training-camp defense,” Stevens said. “We’ve gone back to training camp defensive drills where you’re impacting the ball. You’re doing things you just haven’t had a chance to do since this crazy season has started. I don’t want to minimize our defense so far, because I’m not pleased with where it is, but I do think the teams that are playing the best defense when the season winds down will have a leg up.”
Nesmith given breather
Aaron Nesmith was out of the rotation the first 25 games, then suddenly became a valuable defender off the bench, then just as suddenly was relegated back to the bench. Sunday was the fifth straight game he was held out of.
Why? Stevens said improving health and youth are the reasons.
The coach made the decision to refrain from his 11-player rotations after that humiliating Feb. 24 loss at Atlanta. The Celtics are 5-1 since.
“I just shortened [the rotation],” Stevens said. “When we came back from that trip, we were 15-17 and we talking about being at home [and making changes]. It was more about shortening it and trying to be the best we can be.
“I thought he did a lot of good things and is coming along well, but one of the things when you’ve got Payton [Pritchard] out with the second group as a first-year player, Aaron, I thought did good things, but rotating them together as we got more fully healthy is just more difficult. He’ll get his opportunity. He’ll play.”
The Rockets were once again without Wall, who missed his third consecutive game with a left knee contusion. Rising center Christian Wood was out for the 16th consecutive game with a sprained left ankle. Wood is expected to return Tuesday . . . Romeo Langford has been declared healthy enough to play, but is in COVID-19 protocol. He was the lone Celtics player unavailable Sunday.