BOSTON -- The progress that Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens so desperately craves from his team requires 48 minutes of quality basketball, so getting half of that amount is supremely insufficient. After Boston made some noticeable strides on its recent road trips, Stevens, now more than ever, desires to emerge from games with more than silver linings.
But even Stevens seemed could make a tiny exception after Friday's 92-87 loss to the Houston Rockets. After turning in an absolute first-half dud, the Celtics responded with what Stevens termed "as good of a half of defense as we've played all year."
The Celtics limited these jet-fueled Rockets to a mere 33 second-half points on 11-of-38 shooting (28.9 percent) while forcing 13 turnovers. Rookie Marcus Smart spent much of the second half draped over superstar James Harden while the likes of Evan Turner, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder aided an effort that limited Houston's star to 1-of-8 shooting and 3 points after the intermission (Harden finished with only 14 points on 4-of-21 shooting overall, though his seven assists were a big reason the Rockets held on to win).
Lifeless on defense during a first half in which the Rockets put up 60 points on 52.2 percent shooting and led by as much as 19, the Celtics came out of the locker room as if they'd been hooked up to a caffeine intravenous drip.
Players spent the second half hurtling around the court, denying Houston perimeter players an opportunity to drive and sprinting to the ball as it moved around the court. The Rockets generated a mere nine third-quarter points on 4-of-20 shooting as Boston rallied back into the game. The defense gave the Celtics ample opportunities to pull even, but Boston never quite got over the hump despite pulling within one possession on multiple occasions.
Rockets coach Kevin McHale said after the game that, "We played hideous offensive basketball for 27 minutes." And Stevens admitted that guys like Harden probably missed some shots they typically make.
But the Celtics played some really inspired defense after the intermission, particularly when they forced Houston to play in the halfcourt.
Consider this: The Rockets generated a mere 23 points on 48 possessions in their halfcourt offense during the second half of Friday's game, according to Synergy Sports data. That's an impossibly low 0.479 points per possession. Houston was 8-of-32 shooting in those situations, including a mere 1 of 13 beyond the 3-point arc.
As Stevens singled out in his postgame chat with reporters, the Rockets got some easy second-half points in transition (Synergy had them for 10 points on eight transition plays finished; 1.25 points per play) and those were crucial in Houston hanging on.
Stevens can find some progress in the team's defensive effort; his challenge is to ensure it's played more consistently.
"To hold that team to 33 points is good -- and six or eight of those were on free throws at the end [of the game]. So I mean, you felt like you were guarding and making it difficult."
Smart will attract much of the attention for his physical nature with Harden. When you talk silver linings, having a 20-year-old rookie who isn't afraid to check one of the league's elite scorers 1-on-1 is something you can certainly hang your hat on.
As Brandon Bass noted after the game: "I think [Smart's defense was] why [Celtics president of basketball operations] Danny [Ainge] drafted the young guy."
Bass also hinted after Friday's game that Stevens gave it to the team a bit at halftime. After some encouraging signs out west on the recently concluded six-game trip, including winning a pair of 1-point games against Denver and Portland, while also hanging tough against an elite Golden State squad, Stevens was clearly disappointed that his team took such a big step backwards against Houston.
But the Celtics responded and nearly came all the way back against a talented Western Conference opponent (even if the Rockets were playing without Dwight Howard).
"We just didn't start the game off with energy," said veteran Tayshaun Prince. "Obviously, a team like Houston, when you let them spread the ball around and get aggressive, it's hard to stop them offensively."
Boston picked up its energy in the second half. If it can bottle that play, it will be competitive on a nightly basis moving forward. Boston sits 15th in the league in defensive rating after Friday's game, allowing 103.6 points per 100 possessions. Stevens would like to see his team climb into the top 10 by season's end.
That requires a more consistent effort and a full 48 minutes of defense on a nightly basis.