HOUSTON — The Rockets outscored the Celtics by 13 points in the second half and ultimately surged to a 116-105 win on Tuesday night, snapping Boston’s seven-game winning streak.
The Celtics pulled within 96-94 on a Jayson Tatum dunk with 5:40 left in the game, but the they could not stop fouling the Rockets after that. They twice fouled James Harden on 3-point attempts, and his 3-pointer with just under three minutes left capped a 20-4 run that put the game away.
Harden had 42 points and Russell Westbrook added 36 to lead the Rockets. Gordon Hayward had 20 points for Boston. Jayson Tatum missed all seven of his 3-pointers and had 15 points.
Observations from the game:
■ Neither team found much offensive footing in the first half, but there are too many weapons on these teams for that to continue for too long. In the third quarter Harden was the one to heat up, as he poured in 19 points, including 17 in a row for his team at one point, and 11 in a row over a stretch of just 1:46. The recipe was familiar. Harden hit three 3-pointers and made nine foul shots in the quarter.
■ Harden was taken out of the game a bit during a sequence early in the fourth quarter. He appeared to suffer a leg injury when he fouled Tatum on a shot. On the next play, he committed an offensive foul for shoving Daniel Theis, and then, his movement clearly slowed, he could not keep Tatum in front of him and committed another foul, his fifth.
■ The Celtics did well to attack the basket and draw contact during this stretch, but at the other end they simply committed too many fouls when leaving their feet to contest jump shooters.
■ With 3:47 left in the second quarter, Kemba Walker picked up a rare technical foul when he said something to an official as the Celtics ran back on defense. The ensuing Harden free throw gave Houston its largest lead of the half, 43-35, but perhaps that play ignited Walker a bit. He scored 7 points during Boston’s 12-0 run that followed.
■ With 30 seconds left in the half, one of the wilder plays of this season unfolded. After Tatum stepped forward and blocked Robert Covington’s 3-point attempt, Walker gathered the loose ball. At the other end of the floor, a cleanup crew was wiping up a wet spot beneath Boston’s basket, and it abandoned this mission when it saw action headed its way. Instead of running a fast break, though, Walker heaved a 3-pointer from beyond midcourt. He either felt contact or lost track of the time on the clock. Regardless, the ball caromed off the rim, and Westbrook slipped on the wet spot that had not been cleaned up, leaving Tatum to grab the ball and finish a dunk.
■ With Harden on the floor at the start, the Celtics almost seemed to play a man-to-man defense with zone principles, with the secondary defender closest to Harden veering closer to him than the man he was guarding. Harden had good awareness of this, though, and eventually shooed a teammate to the corner to limit this approach a bit.
■ Westbrook appeared to aggravate a thumb injury when Brad Wanamaker stole the ball from him midway through the second quarter. He quickly fouled Wanamaker and appeared to be in considerable pain as he went to the locker room. But he came back a few minutes later.
■ When discussing Houston’s small-ball approach in recent days, Celtics coach Brad Stevens frequently pushed back, pointing out that Houston’s frontcourt players are strong and built like linebackers, and it can be dangerous to believe you can just post them up because they’re not as tall. Enes Kanter, who has had success overpowering opposing big men, found this out the hard way in the first quarter, when he was simply unable to move P.J. Tucker before throwing up an 8-footer that missed. Kanter figured to be a defensive liability in this game due to the personnel differences, and he played just eight minutes and had 3 rebounds and no points.
■ Yes, we all know the Rockets play without a true center. But it’s still glaring to see Harden take the opening tipoff.
■ They put microphones on the rims at the Toyota Center, so when the ball swishes through the net, it can be heard all the way up in the third deck. I kind of like it. But when shots are clanging off the rim, the sound isn’t quite as nice.
■ There was an unusual play with 30 seconds left in the third quarter. Covington drove to the basket and Grant Williams stepped in front of him to draw contact. One official called a charge while another called a block, and the third referee could not offer input on either side, so it was ruled a double foul and a jump ball. But it didn’t end up mattering, because Houston challenged the play and it was officially called a block.
■ All season in this space, we praised players for firing up end-of-quarter heaves and condemn them for declining. At the end of the third quarter, Westbrook was a serial offender. He snared a long inbounds pass near Boston’s 3-point line with 3.1 seconds left, and then just held onto the ball as time ticked away.