|Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett bump after getting over the hump late in the Celtics' victory. (Pat Sullivan/Associated Press)|
HOUSTON - The Celtics have been politically active in recent days, and they were active on the court last night in taking a 103-99 victory over the Houston Rockets.
Motivated to compensate for a loss at Indiana three days earlier, the Celtics took control for long stretches, leading by as many as 15 in the first half, then holding off the Rockets on the shooting of Ray Allen, who scored a season-high 29 points.
But the Celtics, who take a 3-1 record to Oklahoma City tonight, had to scramble as Allen fouled out in the final minute. Allen scored 11 straight Celtic points late in the quarter, starting with a 3-point play off a follow for a 90-86 advantage with 5:50 remaining. Allen's jumper in the lane capped an 11-4 run for a 98-91 lead with 1:57 to go, Kevin Garnett's 16-footer providing what turned out to be the clinching points 58 seconds later.
"This is a historical moment, more than we realize," Allen said after viewing John McCain's concession speech in the locker room after the game. "This is going to make this country better. [Barack Obama] showed it doesn't matter where you come from, who your parents are, if you work hard, Obama became president, and that's what this signifies."
The Celtics set up Allen with a series of screens, freeing him for jumpers against the defending of Brent Barry and Tracy McGrady.
Celtic center Kendrick Perkins (15 points, 4 blocks) outdueled Yao Ming (8 points), his aggressiveness and quickness keying the Celtic inside game early and his outside shooting providing the finishing touch after some exceptional ball movement.
Allen committed his sixth personal foul defending an inbounds attempt by McGrady, whose foul shot cut the Rocket deficit to 101-97 with 33.9 seconds left. Paul Pierce then missed, the Rockets calling timeout with 13.6 seconds remaining. McGrady was fouled behind the 3-point line with 10.3 seconds remaining, lead official Scott Foster reviewing the play and awarding three shots, though Doc Rivers argued that McGrady was attempting to pass. McGrady converted the first and third.
Eddie House then converted two free throws and the game concluded as Garnett rebounded a Brent Barry airball with four seconds to play.
"The game Saturday night was not in character for us," Rivers said. "We set the tone in the first quarter."
In that quarter, Perkins had 5 points and 6 rebounds, his key play a third-chance follow as he drew Yao's second personal, cutting the Celtics' deficit to 13-10. Yao's hook had provided a 13-8 Houston lead, but after he departed, the Celtics outscored the Rockets, 20-9, to close out the quarter with a 28-22 advantage.
The Celtics faltered in the second quarter before recovering for a 58-53 halftime lead.
After Glen Davis's 3-point play gave the Celtics a 43-27 lead 4:04 into the second quarter, the Rockets' second unit rallied. Houston outscored the Celtics, 25-4, over a 4:34 span, taking a 52-47 lead on Aaron Brooks's jumper with 2:50 remaining.
The Celtic starters regained control of the contest, though, concluding the half with an 11-1 run. Allen converted a 3-point play and a 3-pointer in a 29-second span, then hit two foul shots with 67 seconds to play. Pierce capped the rally with a 3-pointer with 43 seconds to go.
The Celtics took an 81-78 third-quarter lead, displaying flashes of the half-court passing game that helped them win the NBA title last season.
They combined strong defense with excellent ball movement early in the quarter. Successive Rocket possessions concluded with a Yao airball and two Yao shots blocked. Rajon Rondo's direction of the Celtic offense led to open shots for Allen, Garnett, and Perkins.
But after Allen committed his fourth foul, attempting to defend a McGrady drive with 2:33 left in the quarter, the Celtics faltered.
"Once he gets it going, he's tough to stop," Rivers said of Ray Allen. "It's very difficult to run and chase him around screens. Paul hates doing it in practice. We thought we could get him shots, he just had to make them."