BOSTON — Two days after arguably their best win of the season – a Christmas Day blowout over the Bucks – the Celtics were, almost naturally, looking a step slow against one of the worst teams in the NBA.
Their 3-pointers weren’t falling again. They looked sloppy at times. There were several defensive lapses. A young and energetic Rockets squad – even on the second game of their back to back – was going toe to toe with them.
But then, like a switch, the Celtics finally woke up. Maybe sensing what could have been an embarrassing loss, the C’s picked up their defensive energy. Despite their shooting struggles, they were playing a team inferior enough that it didn’t matter. Behind a second-half surge fueled by Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the Celtics – without interim head coach Joe Mazzulla, who missed the game with an eye irritation – figured it out when it mattered en route to a 126-102 win over the Rockets.
Brown had 39 points, Tatum added 38 and the Celtics got massive contributions from Robert Williams on both ends. The Celtics, once reeling on this homestand, have now won three in a row.
The Celtics shot a season-high 56 3-pointers, and only made 20 of them as they put up a bunch of wide-open bricks to start the game, but they were able to easily overcome it against the lowly Rockets, who fought to keep it close. The Celtics led by just five late in the third quarter when Brown took over and scored eight points in 39 seconds to force a Houston timeout. His dunk to cap the run seemed to re-energize TD Garden and the Celtics, who took off from there.
Grant Williams hit back-to-back 3s, Robert Williams flushed a dunk at the shot clock buzzer and suddenly the Celtics led by 11 heading into the fourth. Then Tatum started the final period with a 3-pointer before grabbing a steal that led to a fast break, where Grant Williams threw him a lob for an alley-oop, and the C’s were running.
The Celtics led by 21 after Brown’s pull-up 3-pointer, Tatum’s dunk and another Rob Williams alley-oop before their regulars were taken out.
Some other takeaways from the win:
– After seemingly ending their cold streak from long distance with a strong shooting performance in Sunday’s win over the Bucks, the Celtics went cold again. They went 4-for-16 from the 3-point arc in the first quarter and started the game 5-for-23 from deep. The Celtics were creating good offense, moving the ball well and many of their looks were open, but they just weren’t going down and it seemed to be contagious.
Tatum and Smart made back-to-back triples late in the second quarter that got them going at least briefly before Al Horford made one with eight seconds to go to give them a seven-point halftime lead. But it was clear they were having better success attacking the basket. They went 8-for-29 from 3 and 10-for-16 on two-pointers in the first half as they went 12-for-12 from the free throw line.
– Robert Williams hasn’t cracked the starting lineup yet but he’s still making an impact off the bench. He looked as good and active as he’s been since his return with seven rebounds in his first seven minutes of action on Tuesday night, and recorded a terrific assist on a backdoor cut for Tatum, who completed a three-point play early in the second quarter. He finished with 15 rebounds in 21 minutes, which included boards for several second-chance opportunities, as he played his best stretch of basketball since returning.