Four losses in five games, combined with a monster winning streak authored by the Milwaukee Bucks, cost the Boston Celtics their perch atop the Eastern Conference as the stretch run commenced.
The sudden vulnerability represented the first glaring example of adversity faced by Boston this season, and how the Celtics would respond to that downturn was certainly worthy of interest.
The Celtics seemed to have reclaimed their footing with their 134-125 victory over the Atlanta Hawks in the opener of a six-game road trip that continues against the Houston Rockets on Monday.
Boston shot 54.7 percent from the floor, made 20 of 42 3-pointers and missed only two free throws in its dispatching of the Hawks, showing that any talk of fallibility was premature.
"Regardless of what happens, we just have to fight to play our best basketball," Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. "We have to know what that is and we have to do it more times than not.
"We're not going to be perfect, but we have an identity of what we know to do when we win and we have to stick to that."
That formula typically involves plenty of Jayson Tatum (34 points, 15 rebounds and six assists against the Hawks) and Jaylen Brown (24 points, seven assists and two steals) plus the usual contributions from the Celtics' numerous veteran options. Even the best teams in the league stray from the path during an 82-game season. Getting back on track always remains paramount.
"We know the level we're supposed to play at, how connected we're supposed to be," Tatum said. "What we did was respond, unlike those three games that we lost."
Houston suffered a third consecutive loss and fell to 2-7 since the All-Star break with a 119-111 home setback to the Chicago Bulls on Saturday, one that featured another late-game collapse.
After building a 13-point lead early in the second quarter, the Rockets proved adept at keeping the Bulls at bay, fending off Chicago after the deficit shrank to one point later in the first half and even after the Bulls pulled even twice in the fourth quarter.
When reserve guard Josh Christopher completed a three-point play with 5:40 remaining in the game, the Rockets led 106-102. Houston followed by missing six consecutive shots while committing three turnovers as the Bulls seized control with a 13-0 run that yielded Chicago its first lead since the opening basket of the game.
By coming undone down the stretch, the Rockets sullied another balanced scoring attack that featured seven players in double figures paced by rookie forward Jabari Smith Jr., who paired a team-high 20 points with 10 rebounds.
Houston has enjoyed a modest measure of success lately with an egalitarian approach to offense. The Rockets assisted on 28 of their 41 made field goals against the Bulls, but the late cold snap combined with the miscues undermined their progress.
"It was execution of plays, it was shot selection and it was the shots going in or not," Rockets coach Stephen Silas said.
"We didn't have very much poise down the stretch. Sometimes, poise is gained through experience, but we've been talking a lot about poise, and we didn't show much in the fourth. I was disappointed."
--Field Level Media