HOUSTON — When the Celtics’ locker room was opened to the media about 15 minutes after the team’s 116-105 loss to the Rockets on Tuesday, Marcus Smart was still in his uniform as he sat at his stall, and he was not happy.
In the past, he has taken issue with foul calls awarded to James Harden and Russell Westbrook. And now, for the first time, the two stars are on the same team in Houston. For Smart, that probably made things worse.
His general theme was that officiating can feel like a double-standard, with a foul on one side not viewed equal to one at the other. At one point, Celtics guard Kemba Walker quietly walked to over to Smart and suggested that he not continue his rant in front of reporters. Smart said he did not care.
As Walker went to take a shower, he noticed a stat sheet sitting on top of a black trash can. He nodded and acknowledged to Smart that Harden and Westbrook had combined for 31 free throws while Boston’s entire team had taken 25.
Later, after Smart showered, dressed, and appeared to have cooled down, he offered a slightly more measured stance about his general frustration, while admitting some of it was due to Boston’s missteps.
“It’s just hard for us,” he said. “The way the game is being called, we didn’t know how physical we could be, because when we were physical we were being called, so it kind of made us hesitant and put us on our heels. Anytime you are fearful of fouling, that’s kind of what happened. But we’ll get better at it. They did a good job of being physical and really owning that game and taking it to us.”
Later, Smart pointed out that the Celtics have All-Stars, too, and should be treated the same way by officials. But it’s worth noting that Harden leads the NBA in free throw attempts per game and Westbrook is 15th, and there are no Celtics among the top 35.
So while there is a tendency to label this an officiating problem, it is also a bit of a Harden and Westbrook problem. They are two of the toughest, quickest, craftiest players in the world, and they pounce when they see missteps or opportunities. They did Tuesday by getting the Celtics to bite on pump fakes, leaving them helplessly hanging in the air, a foul waiting to happen.
“You’ve got to do your best to guard them hard without fouling,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I think a lot of teams, and us too, you get tentative because you are concerned about the foul. So that probably was part of it and we just didn’t have our normal ball pressure. But they put you in a tough spot. They’re good.”
Harden finished with 42 points and Westbrook added 36. They combined to go 27 for 31 from the foul line. Houston followed up its 47-point first half by scoring 69 in the second, enough to snap Boston’s seven-game winning streak.
The Celtics’ All-Star duo — Walker and Jayson Tatum — combined to make just 10 of 32 shots and 8 of 12 free throws. Tatum, who was in the midst of the most scorching stretch of his career, missed all seven of his 3-point attempts and also air-balled a free throw.
“It was a tough, nasty, game,” Tatum said. “We tried to grind it out. It wasn’t pretty.”
Jaylen Brown, who limped out of the arena after tweaking both ankles in Sunday’s win over the Thunder, left this game after being inadvertently kneed in the calf by Westbrook midway through the fourth quarter. Just like Sunday, he limped out of the locker room and vowed to keep playing, although with just Thursday’s game against the Clippers remaining before the All-Star break, the Celtics might choose to be cautious.
“I’m glad it wasn’t the ankle,” Brown said. “But we’ve got one game left. I tried to do my best out there. I definitely wasn’t myself. I didn’t feel like myself out there.”
The Celtics actually had a chance to put the Rockets into a tough position due to, well, foul trouble. Harden picked up three fouls over a 35-second stretch with just under eight minutes left, the last one being his fifth of the game. Stevens said Boston tried to attack him over the next few plays to get him to foul out, but it did not quite work.
The Celtics pulled within 96-94 on a Tatum dunk with 5:40 remaining, but their fouls at the other end were too much to overcome.
Brown fouled Harden on a 3-pointer when fighting through a screen, and Walker fouled him on a 3-pointer when he reached out and hit his elbow. The six points that came from those two plays were a big part of the game-defining 20-4 run that finished off Boston, with a Harden 3-pointer with 1:56 left serving as the final dagger.
“I thought we did good until down the stretch,” Walker said. “We just had some really bad fouls. But we’ll see these guys soon again. We’ll be better next time. We’ll be ready, more prepared.”