It took the Celtics 24 minutes to regain the prowess and confidence gained on their moderately successful West Coast trip. They dominated the second half against the Houston Rockets, locking down the Western Conference juggernaut defensively, especially the NBA’s leading scorer, James Harden.
Harden wasn’t the issue Friday night at TD Garden. The Celtics played well enough defensively to win, but with a handful of chances to tie the game late in the fourth quarter, the offense sputtered. The Celtics were left searching for that reliable scorer in the waning moments.
They dropped a 93-87 decision after trailing most of the night. They sliced a 19-point deficit to 3 on three occasions, but were unable to get any closer. The Rockets, who shot 52.2 percent from the field in the first half, converted just 28.9 percent in the second half.
Harden missed 17 of his 21 shots. He looked uncomfortable most of the night, but the Celtics lamented allowing overshadowed big man Donatas Motiejunas to score 26 points on 11-for-16 shooting. He also had 12 rebounds, including a putback with 1:43 left that gave Houston an 86-81 lead.
The Celtics shot 8 for 26 in the final period, including a combined 2 for 12 from their starters. Boston played a superior opponent to a near standstill but was a few plays short, and the players weren’t necessarily pleased at playing two drastically different halves.
“I thought we gave effort but I thought we could have given a little bit more,” forward Brandon Bass said. “I thought everybody wanted to come out with a better effort [in the second half]. I thought in the first half we kind of took a step back. If we can build off the second half, that’s a step in the right direction for us.”
Marcus Thornton and Bass each scored 17 points for the Celtics, who were grinding all night offensively. Jared Sullinger, with two chances to tie the game, missed long 3-pointers and shot 4 of 14, including 1 of 6 in the fourth quarter.
It’s been a miserable month for Sullinger from beyond the arc. He’s made just 13 of 61 attempts (21.3 percent) from deep but made 50 percent of his 2-point shots. Of Sullinger’s 576 field goal attempts this season, 155 (or 26.7 percent) have been from the 3-point line.
He had three wide-open looks in the final 4:13 Friday but wasn’t close on any of them.
NBA teams always fear the first home game after a long road trip because with the travel, getting reacclimated, the weather adjustment, it’s like another road game. The Celtics played as if they were in unfamiliar territory in the first half Friday, allowing Houston do anything it wanted offensively.
“Our first half wasn’t good enough, that was a large majority of our discussion at halftime,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “The opportunity to do this [play at home] is certainly something we’ve got to take advantage of all 41 times we play here. We’ve had some bad quarters or halves here but for the most part we have really played right way. I felt in the first half, we didn’t have any juice.”
In the opening 24 minutes the Celtics could barely celebrate a basket because the Rockets were scoring mere seconds later in transition. Motiejunas, a third-year forward, was a matchup nightmare with his size — 7 feet — and ability to score on the perimeter or in the paint.
Motiejunas, not Harden, led the Rockets in scoring in the first half as Houston soared to a 60-42 lead at the break. Houston scored 30 points in the paint and received 11 points from Detroit castoff Josh Smith and 11 from Harden on just 3-for-13 shooting.
The combination of Evan Turner and Avery Bradley, both so effective on the six-game trip, were a combined 3-for-14 shooting in the first half. The veteran duo of Thornton and Tayshaun Prince (13 combined points) saved the Celtics from being wasted in the early going.
They spent the third quarter slowly dissecting the Rockets’ 18-point lead, using a 3-pointer by Thornton to get within 69-64 at the end of the third quarter. Boston then used an 8-2 run, capped by a Bradley jumper, to slice the deficit to 84-81 and a crowd that included former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe was enthralled.
But, as they have often been this season against stronger opponents, the Celtics were a play short. The Rockets, even without an injured Dwight Howard, increased their defensive intensity, guarding the 3-point line and forcing dribble drives, a Celtics weakness.
Finally, after Thornton’s layup made it 90-87 Rockets with 27 seconds left, Stevens made the interesting decision to foul instead of defend, despite Houston shooting so poorly in the second half.
“We had one timeout, and so you get a stop, you get the ball back with five seconds, you’re bound to have to shoot a three,” Stevens said. “They have everybody in there that can switch. Their length and athleticism made it hard for us to get a sniff at a three late.
“If you could notice, Marcus Thornton had to drive the ball, Avery got it blocked on the last one because it’s — they can swallow you up with their switching. So, yes, it was not as easy as saying, ‘Yes, this is a blanket thing we should do or not.’ I didn’t feel it.”