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Rockets 108, Celtics 102

Celtics hit by Rockets’ fire

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / January 11, 2011

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The moment seemed critical, but Doc Rivers was barely listening.

After the Rockets hit shot after shot, the Celtics falling behind by as many as 12 points in the fourth quarter, they made it a two-possession game on a Paul Pierce 3-pointer with 27.2 seconds left, and it looked like the door had cracked open.

Rajon Rondo dug his heels in, trapping Houston’s Aaron Brooks in the backcourt and making it impossible for him to move as much as an inch. Brooks tried to call a timeout, but it seemed too late.

“Eight-second violation,’’ the voice blared through TD Garden. “Celtics ball.’’

Then came the review. Then came the clarification.

“Inadvertent whistle,’’ the voice said.

Rockets’ ball.

Referee Scott Foster tried giving Rivers an explanation. Every syllable zipped from one of Rivers’s ears and out the other.

“I didn’t even pay attention, honestly,’’ Rivers said. “I heard him and it was probably the way I sounded before the game about playing hard. It sounded like blah, blah, blah.’’

After watching the Rockets light it up, putting seven players in double figures and making wild shots look routine in a 108-102 win, Rivers poured the disappointment and frustration in his team into a shot glass and said bottoms up. He could have gone on forever, there were so many things wrong with the Celtics’ defense last night.

“I thought it was probably our worst defensive effort in three, four years as far as overall effort,’’ Rivers said.

Even though the Rockets hadn’t won in 10 days, they still had one of the league’s most potent offenses. And the issue wasn’t just the Celtics’ defense. It was that they didn’t view Houston as a problem to begin with.

But the Rockets were as desperate as they were depleted. They had lost five straight coming in. They also had lost Yao Ming for the year — again. Their best scorer, Kevin Martin, was a scratch with a sprained right wrist. Their best player, Brooks, was just getting back on the floor after spraining his left ankle. They were playing the fourth of their last six on the road, including this single-game trip to Boston that had coach Rick Adelman griping, “I should get the league a geographic map of the United States.’’

Practically at rock bottom when they arrived, Houston shot 50 percent in the first quarter, 57.9 percent in the third, and by the fourth, everything the Rockets attempted — from Patrick Patterson’s unexpected 16-footers to the 25-foot 3-pointer Brooks drained as he splashed back-first to the parquet — went down, no matter how wild the shots seemed.

“It’s our fault; every shot they made looked wild,’’ Rivers said. “It’s funny, at halftime I told our guys, ‘We’re giving them confidence. An offensive team, you’re giving confidence. If you go into the fourth quarter and you give them confidence, they’re going to make shots. They’re going to make shots. That’s what they do, especially now that they see themselves with a chance to win.’ They made some crazy shots, but it was due to our inability to play defense for three quarters.’’

For just the third time this season, the Celtics choked down a loss on their home floor. The same way they squandered a chance to beat the Rockets with their best players missing, they lost to Oklahoma City without its star, Kevin Durant. The point Rivers wanted to make was that even if the losses seem insignificant now, they’ll matter in the end.

The carrot he continuously tries to dangle is Game 7 of the Finals, which the Celtics had to play on the road last season, after letting so many games get away from them at home.

It’s a point that wasn’t lost on his veterans.

“Especially at home,’’ said Paul Pierce, who scored 16 points on 5-of-12 shooting. “I think we need to really take advantage of games where their best player isn’t playing, guys coming off injury. These games mean a lot down the road.

“We’ve got to understand that nothing is given to us because they’re down a man, or they’ve been struggling for most of the year. We got to put our work boots on and come with our ‘A’ game. We’re not taking advantage of this. There are a lot of games that we’re letting slip away that we’re supposed to win.’’

Rivers took awhile to bask in the flaws of his team.

“I think we had 21 deflections in the first half, I think we came up with one,’’ he said. “That’s almost damn near impossible. So that told us a lot.’’

There was a stretch in the fourth quarter when the Rockets connected on eight straight possessions. The Celtics scored at will, but they couldn’t buy a stop.

“I think we scored six straight times and actually lost 1 point on the lead,’’ Rivers said. “That’s not good. You’ve got to get a stop at some point.’’

To Rivers, the message was clear.

“It’s easy to say what you want to do, but then following through for the whole season, that’s the tough part in a season,’’ Rivers said. “If you ask every player in the NBA in training camp, what was his goal — ‘I want to win a championship’ — that’s what they’re all going to say. But realistically it takes a whole season to get there.’’

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