Celtics-Rockets preview: It's crunch time

Celtics-Rockets preview: It's crunch time

HOUSTON – The sun was just starting to call it a day as darker shadows along the Houston skyline began to set in Friday evening, as Celtics players made their way towards the Toyota Center.

The players and Celtics assistant coaches exchanged a few pleasantries with the NBC Sports Boston reporters before entering the arena, but let’s be clear. 

Their focus at this moment isn’t all that different than their focus this season which has been to find ways to steadily improve their game so that when it’s game time, they would be prepared to do what matters most – find a way to win. 


That approach should serve them well heading into tonight’s game against the Houston Rockets (48-13) who currently have a share of the best record in the NBA with Golden State (49-14) courtesy of their current winning streak which now stands at 14 in a row. 

While the winning streak has drawn added attention to the Rockets and their quest to dethrone Golden State as the team to beat in the West, Houston star Chris Paul said the streak is something that he and his teammates don’t talk about. 

“For us it’s all about the next game and preparing,” Paul said. “We don’t talk about the streak or anything like that. Even after watching film … we’re just thinking about practice now and getting ready for the game.”


And while the wins have steadily piled up, Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni said it’s still easy to find areas the Rockets can improve upon. 

“We still got some … Golden State has set a pretty high bar for the rest of the league,” D’Antoni said. “We still have to get better defensively. We still have to get the rotations down a little bit better.  But things are obviously going pretty good.”

Their current winning streak of 14 in a row, is the second time this season they have won 14 straight games – the only team in the league to do so this year. 

To beat Houston for a second time this season, it will take the Celtics delivering an effort akin to what we saw in the second half of their first matchup this season on Dec. 28, a game in which Boston trailed by 26 points early in the third quarter before rallying for a 99-98 win capped off with a pair of late-game charges drawn by Marcus Smart against James Harden. 

Both sides have tried to move on from the epic Celtics comeback, preferring to instead focus on the key factors in tonight’s matchup. 

And for Boston, it means continuing to play with a high sense of urgency.

“Right now it's crunch time,” said Boston’s Aron Baynes. “You know we got to get better every single time we step on to the court. There's not many days left so every team's stepping up … every team's trying to lock in and get better. This is when time really counts and we're trying to get ready for playoffs and we want to make a long run, so we know every time we step on to the court we got to get better as a group.”


Celtics finding ways to win without Kyrie Irving

File Photo

Celtics finding ways to win without Kyrie Irving

As expected, Kyrie Irving’s first regular season with the Boston Celtics is over following a procedure on his left knee Saturday that team officials described as being "minimally invasive," that will keep him sidelined until the playoffs.

Not having Irving for the final 10 games of the regular season is certainly disappointing for Boston, but it won’t have the kind of devastating impact one might expect a team to have to endure when the leading scorer is out for a significant chunk of time.

Friday’s 105-100 win over Portland was Boston’s fifth straight game without Irving, and 12th this season.


There’s no question Boston is a better team when he is in the lineup.

But when he’s not, the Celtics have continued to find ways to win games which is evident in their 8-4 record when Irving has not played.

Victories over teams like the Blazers only validates the quality depth that the Celtics players speak of when they talk about their team. 

“We know what we have,” said Boston’s Al Horford. “It is encouraging for our group. And for us it’s to make sure we keep working and understand when we commit on the defensive end, we’re a tough team to beat.”

But Horford acknowledges the challenge to be successful becomes infinity greater when key players such as Irving are out.

“We can’t dwell on the guys who are not here, the guys who are injured,” Horford said. “It’s tough, but it’s an opportunity for other guys to step up and guys have really taken advantage of that opportunity. We’re trying to move forward. It’s hard but we don’t have an option.”

Here are five takeaways from Boston’s 105-100 win at Portland on Friday night.


The ability to not just run a team but do so in an effective, steady manner is what separated Shane Larkin from most of the guys who saw action last night. He made timely shots, kept the ball moving (he had seven assists and just one turnover) while playing at a really good tempo which was apparent as he finished with a pace of 95.97 which was tops among all Celtics players.


Greg Monroe could not have picked a better time to play his best basketball of the season. Against the Blazers, he came off the bench and tallied a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds. The 10 boards were particularly impressive with a team-best rebounding percentage of .303 and team-best usage percentage of .316 which speaks to how Boston made a point of going to Monroe early and often when he was on the floor.


It was another big-time scoring night for Marcus Morris who led all scorers with 30 points, easily becoming a fixture as Boston’s go-to guy now that Kyrie Irving (left knee) will miss the rest of the regular season. And like Irving, Morris is doing it in an extremely efficient manner. Against the Blazers, the 6-foot-8 forward was 9-for-13 (69.2 percent) shooting from the field with an effective field goal percentage eFG% of .885.


For most of Friday’s game, Jayson Tatum was not having a good game offensively with three points through three quarters of play. But Tatum, one of the NBA’s better fourth quarter players, was once again saving his best for last. He would go on to lead the Celtics with 10 points in the fourth quarter, which was a huge factor in Boston’s comeback victory.


The Celtics’ second unit looks a little different, but the production and overall impact remains strong as ever. Boston’s backups outscored their Portland brethren 26-10. But more than the points, Boston’s backups individually came up with big plays. Greg Monroe’s 10-point, 10-rebound performance stood out for obvious reasons. But the floor leadership of Shane Larkin and timely contributions from Guerschon Yabusele was also important in the win.


Blakely: Stevens has this coaching in March stuff down

Blakely: Stevens has this coaching in March stuff down

Sometimes we forget that a big part of why Brad Stevens is in Boston is because of what he has done as a coach this time of year.

He led a pair of Butler teams to deep postseason runs before coming up short in a pair of national title games.

Well, he’s embarking on a different kind of March Madness in leading the Celtics to a string of improbable wins, the latest being a 105-100 victory at Portland on Friday night.

It was the kind of victory that when you start to roll out the reasons why Stevens should be this season’s Coach of the Year winner, folks will use the win at Portland as an example.

The Blazers are not only one of the better teams at home, but they came in having won 13 of 14 games with the lone loss coming to Houston, which has the best record in the NBA.

But what made the victory so unexpected was the cut-and-paste lineup Stevens has employed because of a long rash of injuries.

Kyrie Irving missed his fifth consecutive game and is expected to be lost for another three to six weeks after having a procedure to on Saturday to help alleviate some of the soreness in his left knee.

Jaylen Brown has missed several games with a concussion, but he has progressed to where he's now questionable for the game in Sacramento on Sunday night. 

Boston was also without Marcus Smart (right thumb) who won’t be back until sometime in the playoffs.

And that doesn’t factor in Gordon Hayward (dislocated left ankle) or Daniel Theis (torn meniscus, left knee), both out for the season.

It’s easy to chalk up Stevens’ success to great Xs and O’s work.

But he’s doing more than that.

He’s inspiring a level of confidence in players that generated results exceeding all expectations; that is, expectations outside of their locker room.

Even when this team struggled with no clear signs of hope on the horizon, they didn’t blink.

Rather than use their less-than-ideal state as a justification for poor play, they funneled that energy and focus into becoming a better team - not better players, but a better team.

Because frankly, that is what we’ve seen from this group all season. Of course, you have your star in Irving, but this team has been a get-it-done-or-else squad all year that doesn’t get too locked into the success or struggles of any one teammate.

And that has allowed Boston to withstand the kind of injuries to key players that would have crippled many other teams.

But with the lack of bodies, there has been a lack of respect for how good this team really is.

Stevens has tapped into that and used it to help focus this team on playing great and most important, giving themselves a chance to win regardless of the opponent, regardless of how dire a situation may be.

And that has created the kind of March Madness Celtics fans are absolutely lovin’ right now.