HOUSTON — It was too much James Harden and the Celtics expected that. But what cost them a showdown with the Houston Rockets was the dominating interior work of Clint Capela, who had no match Thursday at Toyota Center.
The Celtics expected the Rockets to bombard them with 3-pointers and they did, but when they missed, Capela and his teammates were there to gobble up offensive rebounds and provide second chances for one of the league’s best offensive teams.
Austin Rivers’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer sparked an early fourth-quarter run by the Rockets, and the Celtics’ defense experienced too many breakdowns in a 127-113 loss.
Harden, the NBA’s leading scorer, finished with 45 points on 11-for-26 shooting. He shot a mind-boggling 16 free throws in the second half after the Celtics kept him off the line in the first.
Capela, however, cleaned up every offensive mess with a rebound and he finished with 24 points and 18 rebounds. His counterpart, Al Horford, finished with five rebounds. It was those offensive rebounds that demoralized the Celtics’ defense and caused constant slippage.
Houston entered Thursday 26th in the league in rebounding, yet grabbed 54 to the Celtics’ 38.
“The first 18 minutes and the last 24 minutes, the glass killed us,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Obviously Harden was tremendous, make those stepback threes, those are hard to guard without fouling. I thought the restricted area generally on both ends of the floor, our finishing and our lack of rebounding were separators.”
Offensively, the Celtics were solid, shooting 47 percent and getting double-figure scoring from five players. But they allowed 70 points after halftime, and had little answers in the fourth quarter.
Harden put on a show with his dribbling displays and stepback 3-pointers. Nine of his 10 field goals were 3-pointers as the Celtics kept him out of the paint, mostly. But he countered with the long ball.
The Celtics didn’t seem as annoyed by Harden as they were the rebounding and allowing a combined five 3-pointers from former Celtic Gerald Green and Austin Rivers, son of ex-Celtics coach Doc Rivers. The Celtics tried trading 3-point blows with the heavyweight champ of threes, and they got flattened.
“They hurt us, they kept hurting us all night, those second-chance opportunities,” Celtics center Al Horford said. “When we’re really engaged and locked in and holding them to one shot, we feel like that’s when we’re at our best. They kept getting those second chances, they kept killing us.”
The third quarter was most entertaining, with Kyrie Irving and James Harden taking turns showing their premier offensive games. In one sequence, Harden took 14 dribbles in front of a defending Jaylen Brown before draining a 3-pointer.
Irving countered with a stepback 21-footer as the Celtics crept closer to the lead. His layup put the Celtics up briefly, 77-76, before a Harden 3-pointer.
The Celtics traded baskets for the remainder of the period, with Terry Rozier hitting a 3-pointer with 2.4 seconds left to draw to the Celtics within 89-86. But perhaps the biggest basket of the game occurred when Rivers dribbled to midcourt looking for open space and banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Nene opened the fourth with a conventional 3-point play and suddenly the Celtics were down 9. Green helped the Rockets build a comfortable lead with a pair of 3-pointers and then Harden scored 9 straight points as the Celtics’ defense began to tire. Too much Rocket firepower.
“You’ve just got to take the challenge, honestly,” Irving said of defending Harden. “Watching him for so long you just know his tendencies but it just has to be a collective responsibility to stop him. If you’re not challenging him, then he’s just going to line you up, raise you up and that’s what he ended up doing.”
The Rockets unleashed an array of 3-pointers and Capela putbacks in the first 16 minutes, racing to a 17-point lead, including 17 from Harden, who knocked down five 3-pointers.
The Celtics began the game by single-covering Harden and the most indefensible player in the league responded by draining stepback 3-pointers. The Rockets hit eight of their first 16 attempts, sending the Celtics reeling.
A Danuel House tip-in gave Houston a 50-33 lead with 8:13 left in the second period and the Celtics called timeout, where they made some game-altering adjustments.
The Celtics decided to use Horford as a second defender against Harden, forcing him into more of a facilitator. That immediately stymied the Houston offense, which scored 7 points in the final eight minutes of the half, none by Harden.
Secondly, the Celtics forced other Rockets to make plays and Houston responded by burning the shot clock with indecision. And finally, the Celtics stopped fouling, limiting the Rockets to three second-period free throws, none by Harden, who leads the league in attempts (10.2 per game).
The Rockets responded by unraveling late in the period, being whistled for three technical fouls in a 61-second period: one by the bench for complaining about a call, another by Capela for hanging on the rim, and a third from an irate coach Mike D’Antoni for arguing a non-call on Harden.
It worked for a while, but the Celtics’ defense began slipping late in the third quarter and Harden lived at the line (12 attempts) in the fourth.
“He has a mastery of the game and a control and ease of which he plays,” D’Antoni said. “It’s fun to watch. If you’re on this side, it’s fun.”