James Harden, who has played for the Houston Rockets less than three months, already holds an impressive franchise record, a streak of 14 games with at least 25 points.
The streak is over. The Celtics, called “old, tired and slow” by their coach last week, took a little shine off Harden’s run, keeping him just 1 point from making it 15 games with their 103-91 victory at TD Garden Friday night.
Harden was stymied by two of the more dynamic on-ball defenders in the league: Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee.
“That combination with Courtney Lee and Avery together, is one hell of a combination,” said the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett.
Bradley’s return wasn’t supposed to save the team. Coach Doc Rivers kept saying that. The players said it.
Six games have passed, the last five in which the Celtics have allowed an average of 84.4 points, and their minds have changed.
“That all starts with the return of Avery Bradley,” said Paul Pierce.
Lee, who spent the last two seasons in Houston and averaged 30.3 minutes in 2011-12, may have just needed a push from Bradley to be better in practice, and a push to the bench for the opening tip.
“When we guard each other, we make it hard on each other,” Lee said. “They started pressuring me a little bit today, but I was able to deal with it because [Bradley’s] pressure is 10 times worse than whatever they’re going to do.”
Even though he has averaged almost 10 fewer minutes as a reserve, Lee has watched his assists and steals go up and his turnovers go down.
When he entered the game for Bradley on Friday, the Celtics were trailing, 17-8, getting outhustled and beat on transition by a ferocious Rockets team ranked first in the NBA in pace factor, which measures the number of possessions a team has per game.
But with two minutes left in the first quarter, Lee intercepted a pass and raced down to drain a 3-pointer.
Then with five seconds left, Lee picked up a loose ball, sprinted down the floor, and floated a jumper at the buzzer that gave the Celtics a 24-21 lead. They never fell behind again.
No one finished with a higher plus/minus rating than Lee, who helped the Celtics go plus-17 while he was on the floor.
Before Friday, the Celtics had gone 3-7 against teams ranked in the top-10 in pace factor.
“It’s time for a change now,” Lee said.
“We’re new and young,” Rivers said. “I thought we were doing way too much thinking on the floor instead of just buying into what we’re doing. For whatever reason, it’s taken a while.”
Defensively against Harden, Lee and Bradley both shined.
Harden turned the ball over six times, just the fifth time in 36 games he has had at least six turnovers.
And when he needed to hit 3-pointers down the stretch, Bradley was in his face. Harden finished 2 for 8.
Once, Bradley appeared to get beat, when Harden made a crossover move that resulted in Bradley falling backward onto the floor.
Asked about the play, Lee said, “When did he get crossed?”
“Listen,” Lee said. “He shoved my man and got pushed to the ground. [Harden] didn’t even go nowhere.’’
Back and forth in practice, the two go at each other. On a team together, they’re hard to beat.