GARY WASHBURN | ON BASKETBALL
JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF
Those pee-wee basketball mites watching Thursday’s Celtics game after another practice in which they repeatedly worked on inbounds passing and other rather mundane situational plays now know why ol’ coach works on these things.
The Celtics conducted a clinic in front of a national television audience, a sellout crowd and the Houston Rockets on how to lengthen a game, how to methodically chop down and eliminate a mountainous deficit and how to play with poise until the end, with the hopes the opponent eventually cracks.
The Rockets cracked. They blew a 26-point lead and failed three times to get the ball inbounds in the final 13.5 seconds, the final two botched attempts were offensive fouls on MVP candidate James Harden, who pushed off Marcus Smart twice trying to create space.
The only time the Celtics led was at the end, 99-98. They trailed, 64-38, with 10:50 left in the third quarter and 69-44 with 7:40 left. The leads appeared insurmountable against one of the league’s better team, which essentially embarrassed the Celtics in the first half.
Boston basketball appeared fraudulent in the first 24 minutes. The Rockets were missing Chris Paul, center Clint Capela and defensive ace Luc Mbah a Moute and still stroked 3-pointers all over the floor, drove to the rim with little resistance and lived at the free throw line.
For 24 minutes, the Celtics were pretenders, good enough to beat downtrodden teams like Charlotte but hardly at the level of the NBA elite, a month removed from that home win over the Warriors.
That is no longer the case. Rallying from a 26-point deficit changes perceptions. Holding one of the league’s most prolific offenses to 25 percent shooting in the second half makes you one of the elite, a title that is potentially fleeting but apropos for now.
Harden missed 14 of his 17 shots in the second half, committed five turnovers and was a minus-22 in his 21 minutes. It was the best Celtics’ half of the season, and it restored the players’ confidence in one another after a putrid first two quarters.
“We said there’s a reason why Houston is hard to guard, you have to play with incredible multiple efforts, and we didn’t,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “There’s a lot of excuses this group could have made but they didn’t, to their credit. That was probably the most encouraging thing about (Thursday). The result doesn’t matter, it’s the resilience that they showed, which they could have easily folded.”
The first half was reminiscent of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals where the Cavaliers led the Celtics, 72-31, and coasted to a 44-point win. The Celtics relented in that game; they became discouraged and gave up. They could have done the same Thursday when they didn’t make a dent into their 26-point deficit 5 minutes into the third quarter.
“We’ve been down before but we hadn’t been dominated like that and come back and won,” Stevens said. “It was encouraging to see again, guys stayed poised . . . That’s something you want to see out of your team and those are good qualities to have.”
This game was destined for a frantic and bizarre finish when only two officials were present at tipoff. The NBA has used three officials for the past 19 years, which has cut down on the game’s physicality. But official Mark Lindsay injured his back Thursday and the league was unable to provide a replacement, forcing two officials to oversee these two athletic teams.
So this rugged 80’s style game wasn’t exactly embraced by players used to getting those touch calls their forefathers didn’t. Harden was visibly upset about the circumstances, and it obviously affected his approach on those two pivotal offensive foul calls.
“First of all, how do you only have two officials on a national TV game?” he asked. “That’s the first question. A lot of grabbing, a lot of holding. How else am I supposed to get open, guy has two arms wrapped about my whole body. We blew a lead, turned the ball over a little too much. That was that.”
Harden lost his poise and the Celtics, for the first time since that Nov. 16 win against the Golden State Warriors, imposed their defensive will against a championship caliber team. They played through the entire game, even when their chances of winning seemed miniscule.
So it served not only as a lesson to those who believe last-minute rallies are simply a matter of luck, but also a lesson to the Celtics that they are capable of performances like the second half, even when they looked so lethargic in the first.
This win could have long-term implications because it’s the second time in two-plus weeks that the Celtics snatched victory from an opponent that essentially deserved to win. That’s how special seasons are built and this is turning into one of those rather stirring seasons.
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