HOUSTON -- On numbers alone, last night probably represented the Celtics' best chance for victory on this otherwise brutal road swing.
The Rockets were reeling, their coach was talking like Dr. Phil, and Houston's age and lack of bounce made the Rockets ideal targets, one might surmise, for the young, springy Celtics.
After all, the Celtics had drilled Houston by 20 last month in Boston, with Raef LaFrentz going otherworldly on the visitors with 32 points and seven 3-pointers. Last night, LaFrentz was more netherworldly, going 0 for 6, scoring 1 point, and the rest of the Celtics followed suit, dropping a hideous 91-73 decision before 14,665 at the
The Celtics went for season lows in points (the previous was 81 against Detroit Nov. 4), shooting percentage (34.3), and assists (8) in once again failing to win consecutive games.
Boston and Houston remain the only teams in the NBA without two straight wins; Houston had lost eight of nine prior to last night.
''We didn't play well," Celtics coach Doc Rivers understated. ''We didn't deserve to win."
He's right. The stunningly low assist total (the previous low had been 16) indicated two things: a lack of ball movement and a lack of baskets. LaFrentz, Paul Pierce (20 points), and Ricky Davis (10) were a combined 8 for 28 and even that was misleading; through three quarters, the trio was 5 for 23. LaFrentz had a couple of wide-open looks at 3-pointers early and boinged them big time.
''They felt like crap. They looked like crap," he said matter-of-factly.
Pierce had an Adrian Dantley line -- 3-13-20 -- and never got into the groove in part because foul trouble limited him to 31 minutes.
''One of them nights," said Pierce, who was 3 for 10 from the field. ''The fouls called were frustrating, but it was just one of those games. I thought we had a lot of good looks, good opportunities, but we couldn't knock them down."
Added Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy, ''I thought Pierce being in foul trouble helped us."
In addition to their grisly offense, the Celtics had no answer defensively for Tracy McGrady, who lit them up for 35 points, which, on this night, seemed more like 60.
Every time Houston seemed on the verge -- and the Rockets have been an on-the-verge team all season -- McGrady (14 for 20 from the field) was there with a big hoop. He had two quickies to open the fourth quarter, expanding an 11-point lead to 15, and the Celtics never put up much resistance the rest of the way, failing to get closer than 10.
Rivers tried just about everything, including a lineup in the fourth that at one point featured Ryan Gomes guarding Yao Ming. But needing to erase the aforementioned 11-point deficit after three, the Celtics instead went into vapor lock. Boston shot 33 percent (4 for 12) in the fourth while Houston connected on 11 of 20 shots.
The Rockets also had a 12-4 rebounding advantage in the period and the Celtics managed a single assist, a pretty Pierce feed to Al Jefferson (12 points, 10 rebounds).
Where did it start to get away? Try the first four possessions of the second quarter. The game was deadlocked at 18 after an underwhelming first quarter and the Celtics opened the second with three turnovers in those four possessions. The other resulted in two missed free throws by Justin Reed, the first an air ball. Houston scored 7 unanswered points and never looked back.
The Rockets led by 10 at the half, pushed it to 17 in the third before the Celtics cut it back to 11 after three thanks to a 12-2 run led by Delonte West (12 points) and Jefferson. But T-Mac converted a layup, then knocked down a jumper in the first 59 seconds to make it a 15-point lead.
Houston can make you look bad. While the Rockets shoot badly and don't score, they also tend to make their foe do the same at the other end. Rivers had hoped to get the Celtics off and running early, as was the case in Boston, which would have forced the Rockets to play out of character. Instead, the whole game was played at Houston's preferred pace -- methodical.
''It was a terrible night," Davis said, accurately describing what had just taken place. ''It started early and kept on going."
But it was just what the Rockets needed. With a road trip looming, Houston needed this one a lot more than the Celtics did.
And, as is usually the case, the team that needs it more, wants it more, generally gets what it needs and wants.