If you missed last night’s Celtics-Rockets game—if, say, you were watching outdoor hockey or a heavyweight title fight—you missed an outrageously fun and fast and fiercely competitive game. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a game where James Harden and Kyrie Irving combined to shoot 12-of-35 from the floor to be very appealing, but here we are: this game fucking ruled!
Boston built a lead in the first half behind dominant play from their bench—Marcus Morris (plus-5), Terry Rozier (plus-11), Marcus Smart (plus-14), and Greg Monroe (plus-17) combined for 33 first-half points on 12-of-20 shooting. Possibly this is a huge part of what made this game so much fun: it seemed like every time the ball found a Celtics role player briefly uncovered on the perimeter, that player banged home a three-pointer. It’s not just that the Celtics are deep with genuinely useful players—they also have a specific idea of how they want to use all of those players, such that opposing teams have to actually worry about where they are and what they’re doing. Rozier, Morris, and Monroe combined to shoot 21-of-29 from the floor in this game! 21 buckets is a lot of buckets for a trio of bench players, but also, 29 shots is a lot of fuckin’ shots!
And the Rockets have the same strengths! Their bench got roundly outplayed in the first half, but in the second half Eric Gordon exploded for 19 points on just eight shot attempts, including 4-of-6 shooting in the fourth quarter. Every one of his made buckets in the second half was an above-the-break three. For all of Boston’s defensive versatility, when Gordon is scorching the nets in Houston’s four-out, drive-and-kick offense, he becomes an almost unsolvable problem. Poor Jayson Tatum ate a hearty meal of in-your-face three-pointers courtesy of Eric Gordon Saturday night:
Possibly the Celtics woke up this morning regretting juuust a little their commitment to sharing the ball: in the fourth quarter, with the game there for the taking, Kyrie Irving was only able to get up two shots and four free throws in seven minutes, and the Celtics were ultimately outscored by six points in the frame. Hilariously, the game was swung by a stretch of two way brilliance from, of all people, Trevor Ariza: Marcus Morris couldn’t miss, and it was starting to feel like the only way the Rockets could get a stop and claw back even would be by forcing turnovers; right on time a trap forced a turnover after a James Harden miss, and Chris Paul found Ariza open above the break for the game-tying three; on the subsequent Celtics possession, Ariza tracked Irving around the rare legal Al Horford screen and snagged Irving’s pocket pass, then sprinted the other way and dropped in the go-ahead layup. The Celtics would not lead again.
The box score says these teams missed shots in the fourth quarter, but it didn’t seem like it in real time: every time Rozier or Morris or Gordon or P.J. Tucker caught the ball and launched a huge, potentially game-swinging three-pointer, that it would find the bottom of the net seemed absolutely inevitable. Only the final minute or two broke down into standard foul-and-free-throw tedium. But when Marcus Smart threw up a wild, fading three in the final seconds, I felt certain it would splash home. It didn’t, of course, and the Rockets escaped in front of a delirious, euphoric home crowd.
I am not convinced the Rockets are the best team in the Western Conference, just as I’m not sure the Celtics aren’t the best team in the Eastern Conference. But I can say with absolute certainty that a Finals series featuring these two teams would be awesome. Deep benches are supposed to matter less in the playoffs, and of course time will tell whether Boston’s relatively anemic offense will stand up to the heightened defensive intensity of the playoffs. And, of course, LeBron is lurking. But, man, the Celtics and Rockets put on a hell of a show Saturday night, featuring whole waves and chapters powered and defined by brilliant bench play and fearless role-players.