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ROCKETS 107, CELTICS 106

Al Horford misses layup, Celtics blow chance in loss to Rockets

Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas cut through the Rockets defense for a first-half layup.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

HOUSTON — About 20 minutes after the final buzzer, point guard Isaiah Thomas and a few team staffers huddled around a laptop computer and rewatched the final, frustrating moments of the Celtics’ 107-106 loss to the Rockets.

Avery Bradley saw them and walked across the room.

“Are you showing the play, I.T.?”

It was unclear which play Bradley was referring to. But there were so many of them in the final moments that did not go the Celtics’ way that could have made this night different.

There was James Harden, centimeters from the end line, throwing the ball off Thomas and out of bounds. There was Bradley spotting up on the 3-point line only to have his shot ruled a 2-pointer. And then there were the two fateful plays in which the Celtics could blame no one but themselves.

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Thomas drove the left baseline and missed a running layup attempt before the ball was knocked out of bounds with seven seconds left. After a timeout, the inbounds pass came to Al Horford, who got a step on his defender and had an open look at a layup, but the ball caromed off the backboard, off the rim, and out.

Horford put his hands on his head in disbelief; the Rockets celebrated.

“I didn’t execute as well as I wanted to toward the end tonight,” Horford said, “so I take the fall for that.”

The Celtics entered Monday night in third place in the Eastern Conference, and although that is a comfortable place in the standings, their route here has not been especially impressive.

This season they have played three elite teams: the Warriors, Cavaliers and Spurs. And they have lost to all of them. While Boston has collected a few nice wins, it has also done much of its damage against bottom-feeders. The Rockets are not championship contenders, but they are dangerous, and so they gave the Celtics another opportunity for a signature win.

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But it did not happen. Just three of Boston’s 12 wins have come against teams with winning records, and the best of that bunch statistically, the Hornets, are just 12-9 this season.

The Celtics were slightly encouraged that they had come close, that they charged back from a 12-point deficit on the road against a powerful team.

“But two layups, two last possessions usually go down, and they didn’t,” Thomas said. “And we lose the game.”

James Harden finished with 37 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds for Houston. He made all 18 of his free-throw attempts. Horford had 21 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds for the Celtics, but he will remember this game for the one play he did not make.

Thomas had 20 points and three assists. He said he strained his groin during the second quarter, and he received medical treatment for about a half-hour in the locker room following the game. Thomas said he probably would not practice on Tuesday, but added that he planned to face the Magic in Orlando on Wednesday.

The Rockets led, 65-53, early in the third quarter when the Celtics surged back in front with a 15-2 run that included 3-pointers by Jae Crowder, Horford and Jonas Jerebko, who started the game in place of Amir Johnson to give the Celtics more 3-point shooting and defensive versatility.

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The Celtics outscored the Rockets, 35-19, in the third period and went to the fourth with an 83-77 lead.

Boston still led by 6 with just over four minutes left when Houston went on an 8-0 run in a blink. Harden attacked the rim and ended up with four free throws, Patrick Beverley stole the ball and coasted in for a layup, and Montrezl Harrell threw down a one-handed dunk, giving the Rockets a 102-100 lead.

Thomas and Crowder both said the Celtics had some communication issues during that stretch, with some players being unsure of the actual play call. They said that issue would be fixed promptly.

“Missed shots are OK,” Crowder said, “but miscommunication and turnovers we can’t have.”

The Celtics still trailed by 2 with 1:07 left when Horford’s 15-footer was long. At the other end, Harden canned a step-back 3-pointer, making it 107-102 with 54.8 seconds remaining.

With 46.9 seconds left, Bradley hit a long shot from the right arc that was ruled a two-pointer, and the call was not overturned after being reviewed on video, although several Celtics believed it should have been.

“Avery’s 3-pointer should have been a 3-pointer,” Thomas said.

The Celtics trailed, 107-104, with 24 seconds left when Harden missed a running jump-shot. Beverley chased down the rebound and the Celtics would have needed to foul.

But as Marcus Smart smothered Harden, Harden swung an elbow and struck Smart in the face, resulting in a flagrant foul. Smart made both free throws to pull the Celtics within 1 point, and Boston had the ball with 16.2 seconds left. But it turned out that was as close as the Celtics would get.

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“That’s a tough loss and a tough pill to swallow,” coach Brad Stevens said, “but I think there was more positive than not against a team that’s really hot and playing really well.”


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@adamhimmelsbach.