The Celtics forced an improbable overtime after Jaylen Brown drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer in regulation Saturday, but they were unable to carry that momentum into the extra session, as Houston ultimately clawed its way to a 111-110 win.
Jayson Tatum had 32 points and 13 rebounds but made just 9 of 27 shots. Marcus Smart added 26 points and 7 assists. Russell Westbrook had 41 points on 16 of 27 shooting to lead Houston.
The Rockets had the ball and a 5-point lead with under 30 seconds left in regulation when James Harden turned it over, leading to a quick Smart layup.
Then after Westbrook hit one of two free throws, Smart added an off-balance 3-pointer to make it 102-101. Westbrook hit a pair of free throws with 8.1 seconds left.
Houston then intentionally fouled Tatum with 5.1 seconds left. He missed the first one, all but sealing the win for Houston. But after Tatum intentionally missed the second shot, the ball was batted back to Brown, who drilled the 3-pointer from the top of the key at the buzzer, sending the game to overtime and sending the Garden into a tizzy.
Neither team was able to extend a lead beyond 2 points for the first four minutes of overtime. Tatum and then Daniel Theis had two big blocks on Harden drives.
With Boston leading, 110-109, Tatum missed a layup with 51 seconds left. Theis tracked down the loose ball and called timeout, but Hayward missed an open 3-pointer from the right corner and Harden was eventually fouled with 24.3 seconds left.
He made both free throws. The Celtics elected not to call timeout, and their final possession took a while to transpire. Eventually, Brown missed a tough 15-foot fadeaway. Theis tracked down the rebound but time expired before he could get up a shot.
Observations from the game:
■ Much is made of a team playing its first game at home after a long road trip in different time zones. Before the game, Brad Stevens brushed off that excuse before it could become one, but there was no doubt that the Celtics looked slower to the ball than the Rockets, particularly during the second half. On one possession, Houston beat Boston to consecutive offensive rebounds before the play ended with an Eric Gordon 3-pointer. The Rockets had 7 turnovers in the first quarter but just 6 in the second and third quarters combined.
■ Houston made 6 of 22 3-pointers in the first half but drilled 7 of 13 in the third quarter. Westbrook and Harden consistently made their way into the paint and sprayed the ball out to wide open shooters. A 10-0 third-quarter run helped the Rockets erase the double-digit deficit and take an 81-78 lead to the fourth.
■ Brown had a strong first quarter, consistently looking to attack the rim, where Houston’s small-ball attack has no shot-blockers lurking. After his strong drive to start the game for a layup, he flexed his biceps and continued to look for gaps inside. After a 10-point first quarter, he veered from that approach and settled for long jumpers more often in the second, when he was scoreless. Tatum and Brown both fired up a few ill-advised 3-pointers as the Celtics were looking to extend their double-digit lead.
■ Smart was by far the Celtics’ best player in the first half. In a word, he was everywhere. He hit 3-pointers, disrupted passing lanes and fired pinpoint passes. The first signs that he could be in for a big half appeared early, and several of them did not even make it into the stat sheet. He swallowed up a steal, he kept an offensive rebound alive that ended with a Theis basket, he played great on-ball defense on Westbrook, allowing Tatum to swoop in for an easy blocked shot.
■ Fresh off his dominant four-game road trip, Tatum appeared to be pressing a bit on offense in the first half of this nationally televised spotlight game. He missed one early wide open 3-pointer that was all but a lock to go in during his hot streak, and didn’t really find a rhythm before the break, finishing 3 for 10 with three turnovers.
■ Eric Gordon did not play when these teams met in Houston earlier this month and has dealt with several nagging injuries. And perhaps that explains why he missed two first-half 3-pointers about as badly as someone can, one an airball and another a missile that caromed off the backboard.
■ Romeo Langford did a solid job on defense during the first meeting between these teams, and his number was called again in the first quarter. But the Rockets consistently looked to attack him in isolation sequences, and when he committed fouls on a pair of 3-point plays in short order, he went to the bench for the rest of the half.
■ Semi Ojeleye picked up the defensive slack for Langford, however. He drew a pair of second-quarter charges on Harden, the second after Brown harassed the Rockets All-Star with tremendous on-ball defense.
■ There was an unusual call that worked out in Boston’s favor with 3:41 left in the second quarter. Westbrook charged toward Smart in the corner and was called for a flagrant foul when he did not let Smart land after taking a 3-pointer. Smart hit all three free throws and the Celtics maintained possession, and Gordon Hayward then added a 3-pointer for a six-point trip.
■ Kemba Walker is generally the last Celtics player to be introduced during pregame introductions. When he has been out, that honor has typically gone to Hayward, probably because he is a veteran and was the only other former All-Star in the group. Hayward was the last one called, but it’s probably time to shift that spot to Tatum, who played in his first All-Star game this season and just completed one of the most dominant offensive months in Celtics history. He has been Boston’s best player this season, and likely will be deep into the future.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.