BOSTON – The Boston Celtics managed to shut down the NBA's leading scorer for most of the second half and overtime.
Just one problem.
The Celtics were pinned up against the ropes toward the end of regulation Saturday night, before Jaylen Brown delivered a surprise haymaker out of nowhere. His miraculous, game-tying 3-point blow at the buzzer momentarily stunned the visiting Houston Rockets, who had been in control for most of the second half of the nationally televised fight.
In that moment, Brown’s shot seemed to have swung the momentum in Boston’s favor. But in the end, Houston’s physicality prevailed. The Rockets withstood the blow, maintained their composure throughout overtime, and then walked out of TD Garden with a 111-110 victory.
“I thought the right team won,” C’s coach Brad Stevens admitted after the game. “Their physical presence is real, so I think that when they turned it up a notch physically in the second half, we got stagnant because they were imposing their will on the game, and they can do that. It’s not a knock on our guys necessarily by any means. It’s just that that’s the strength of their team.”
The Celtics started off as the stronger team, as they took a 56-45 lead into halftime. That all changed after the break, however, as Houston turned up its physicality and dominated the third quarter, 36-22.
“That’s just one of their advantages,” said Jayson Tatum, who finished with a team-high 32 points. “They’ve got a bunch of guys that are around the same size, kind of big and strong. It was just a physical game both ways. The refs were letting us play at both ends, so we were just going at it.”
Though, it’s not easy to keep going at it against a brawny group that Stevens on several occasions has referred to as “a bunch of linebackers.” Still, the Celtics managed to hold their ground all the way to the end.
Boston rallied from a six-point deficit during the final 36 seconds of regulation, saving its most incredible play for last. Houston was up three with five seconds remaining when it decided to intentionally foul Jayson Tatum. He went to the line and missed his first attempt, and then purposely missed the second with the hope that he or one of his teammates would collect the rebound off the rim.
Sure enough, Marcus Smart was there to bat the ball out to Brown, who rose up from beyond the arc and sunk the tying bucket as time expired.
“We actually go over those situations in practice,” explained Brown, who finished with 22 points. “Trying to get it down, hit it off the rim and see what happens, and the shot went in.”
Brown also had the ball in his hands during the closing seconds of overtime with his Celtics down one. However, his step-back, free-throw-line jumper came up short, caroming off the front iron and into the hands of Daniel Theis, who couldn’t get a shot off before the final buzzer sounded.
“He got a clean look at the rim and we believe in him and trust him,” Stevens said of Brown’s final shot.
Though, the game wasn’t lost in that moment. The defeat traced back to Boston’s inability to combat Houston’s physicality, particularly when it came to crashing the glass during crunch time.
“We have to become a little bit better at holding our ground,” said Stevens. “Part of it is just the brute strength and part of it is picking your spots a little bit better, getting angles a little bit better. Then I think the other thing that’s always a great reminder is that that possession is never over until you have the ball. And they killed us on the glass in the third and fourth quarters from the corners and slashing and crashing. Those were big, huge plays.”
The Celtics will surely revisit those plays in the film room over the next couple of days, so that way the next time they face a similar challenge, they’ll be better prepared.
“We still have another level we can go to,” Brown suggested optimistically. “Tonight we fell short, but it's another good learning lesson, another great game for us to build off of and learn.”