MEMPHIS — It’s the little things, Kyrie Irving said. Such as the final 2.4 seconds of the third quarter Thursday for the Celtics in Houston, perhaps the most important stretch of the game.
Terry Rozier had just drained a 3-pointer to put the Celtics within 3 points prior to what was expected to be a thrilling fourth quarter against the high-scoring Rockets.
Eric Gordon took the ball out, without any Celtics player contesting him. He bounced a chest pass toward Austin Rivers, who allowed it to bounce a few more times to buy him some more time. By the time he picked it up at halfcourt, Rivers was surrounded by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Daniel Theis.
Theis tried half-heartedly to draw a charge, while Tatum and Brown watched Rivers release a 27-footer without much resistance, afraid they would be whistled for a foul. Rivers banked the shot in, and the Celtics were down by 6. Twenty-six seconds into the fourth quarter, Nene completed a conventional 3-point play and suddenly the Celtics were down 9.
In a span of 28.4 seconds, the Celtics essentially lost this game because they took for granted Rivers wouldn’t be able to get off a clean look in 2.4 seconds and were afraid of a foul call if he did.
“That’s part of our growth, though,” said Irving, addressing the Rivers’s buzzer-beater after the 127-113 defeat. “It’s a [3-point] game, we feel good, Terry hits a big shot. And Austin gets it and our guys are trotting back. In the playoffs, you get killed for [expletive] like that. We’ve all seen it. It’s just little plays like that that matter in the big picture, but everyone else can brush it off like it’s nothing, but it’s a big-time play. It’s  points, but in the management of the game, it matters.”
It was an important play because it deflated the Celtics as they entered the fourth quarter. Boston, which had trailed by as many as 17 points in the first half, had briefly taken the lead in the third quarter and then watched as Rivers banked in a 3-pointer to give his team momentum.
What’s going to separate the Celtics from goodness and greatness are the little things. They refused to challenge the Rockets on the boards Thursday, allowing Clint Capela to look like Moses Malone as he simply tapped misses to himself without much challenge.
And that included the veterans. Al Horford collected just four rebounds – two defensive – in 24 minutes. Theis played 18 minutes and collected one defensive rebound.
There are nights when the Celtics all appear engaged and on the same page and there are nights when some guys seem to be in a daze. Boston was a step slow against the Rockets, and then dominated for about eight minutes to close the halftime deficit to 2.
And just when one would expect that momentum to carry over, they allowed 35 points in the third quarter — 21 of those on 3-pointers — and had to rally yet again. It all seemed to be OK when Rozier hit that 3-pointer, and then Rivers got the ball with 2.4 seconds left.
“Yeah we have the talent,” Irving said. “But for us, it’s making sure that we’re doing the little things. I was talking to a couple of our veterans, making sure we stay on our young guys as well as us and having the responsibility of doing the little things, boxing out, just limiting those guys to one shot per possession. They’re a great team, but you limit them to one shot and the game becomes a lot harder for them.”
The Celtics make many things harder for themselves, especially against the elite teams. One night it’s rebounding, the next it’s defensive slippage, and the next night the offense struggles. But perhaps the good news is the club is beyond losing games due to glaring weaknesses. This loss was because of a few second-half plays that allowed the Rockets to play freely and James Harden to control the offense without the pressure of a close game.
Irving was openly chatting with Horford in the locker room after the game about those little things, a lack of precise execution that leads to losses. The Celtics have 48 games left to figure this thing out.
Irving had a clear messages for his teammate.
“You have guys doing the little things, such as PJ Tucker and Clint Capela, keeping the basketball alive for those guys and getting multiple possessions, and guys like Eric Gordon and Gerald Green are just jacking [3-pointers] up,” Irving said. “We’ve just got to stay disciplined against teams like that.
“The next step for us is knowing there’s other opportunities for you to make a basketball play other than having a ball in your hands. You don’t need the ball to just dribble, dribble, and shoot fadeaways, you can cut backdoor, you can screen for your teammate. There are other things to help an offense flourish.”