HOUSTON — A team that has prided itself on defensive dominance over the past half-decade is now allowing reserves such as Houston’s Greg Smith and San Antonio’s Tiago Splitter to record career nights. This is what the Celtics’ once-proud and pristine defense has been reduced to.
Opposing teams are spending games going after the Celtics’ rotating defense, realizing one of the five guys is going to shift a half-second late. It happened all night Friday at the Toyota Center, as mastermind Kevin McHale, who used to overwhelm defenses with his post game, challenged the Celtics to stop Houston’s bigs near the basket.
They couldn’t. And an early-season problem that cost Boston a handful of games is not improving, at least not consistently. Houston’s 101-89 victory was about execution and their inability to carry out coach Doc Rivers’s well-scripted game plan.
So the question is becoming whether this aging team that has had trouble stopping dribble penetration for two years now is even capable of being that stalwart defensive team of yesteryear. After watching the Rockets (11-11), 20th in the league in field goal percentage, shoot 57.1 percent in the second half, Rivers wondered.
“I know people are going to look and say our bigs got beat up tonight; our bigs got beat up tonight because our guards, or small forwards and our power forward, they couldn’t keep the ball in front of them,’’ Rivers said. “At some point it’s a one-on-one defense and that makes the team defense better. We didn’t do a very good job of it.
“I have to do a better job of preparing the team. Everybody shouldn’t play every night the way we’re playing. This was a step backward for us.’’
The Celtics were hoping to steal one in Houston knowing they face San Antonio, coming home after a long road trip, on Saturday. But the Celtics seemingly took the inconsistent Rockets for granted and the most disheartening aspect was the duo of James Harden and Jeremy Lin (combined 8-for-23 shooting, 26 points) weren’t the source of the Rockets’ offense.
Instead it was Smith, who scored 20 points in less than 22 minutes, and how he scored was disheartening. Of his eight field goals, six were layups or dunks; one was a 5-foot hook shot. And he hit one early 20-footer. The Rockets simply used Lin, Chandler Parsons, or Harden to drive into the paint, then find Smith roaming around the hoop. By the time Kevin Garnett or Chris Wilcox rotated, Smith was at the basket. Parsons, Lin, and Harden collected 20 of Houston’s 23 assists.
Although Garnett is always one to take responsibility in defeat, he pointed out that the Celtics’ team defense faltered.
“Well, we have schemes, you can put it on the bigs but at the end of the day, we’re all out there together,’’ he said. “The scheme doesn’t involve one or two people, it involves all five. I thought the third quarter . . . I think they scored every time down. In the second half they got into a rhythm that was undeniable.’’
The Celtics trailed by 13 early, then used an 18-2 run to grab a 7-point lead. Then they scored one field goal in the last 3:35 of the half, a stupor that spilled into the second half. The Rockets scored the first 6 points of the third quarter, shot 61.1 percent in the period to take a 5-point lead, then spent the fourth crushing the Celtics with clutch shot after clutch shot.
Paul Pierce led the Celtics with 18 points on 5-for-18 shooting, a testament to their offensive struggles. And when the Celtics made their final push, the Rockets responded with execution. Harden, mostly contained, by the Celtics, scooped up a loose ball near midcourt and swished a 28-footer for a 91-83 Houston lead with 4:43 left.
And finally, after a lazy Rajon Rondo pass was picked off by Parsons, Toney Douglas knocked down a corner 3-pointer and the Celtics were done, soundly beaten by team that had given up an average of 115.6 points the previous five games.
“We missed a lot of good looks; we missed a lot of layups, open jumpers,’’ said Rondo, who had 13 assists. “That’s part of the game. That still can’t affect the way we get back defensively. I turned the ball over, I think a season high [seven times] so they capitalized on those turnovers.’’
After a putrid first six minutes, the stupor ended temporarily in the second quarter when the Celtics turned a 9-point deficit into a 7-point lead in six minutes. The Celtics used 7 points by Pierce and an up-tempo pace that allowed Rondo to create scoring opportunities for his teammates.
It was the Celtics’ best stretch of the evening and it ended with a Pierce 3-pointer for a 41-34 lead at the 3:35 mark. That would be their apex. They cracked defensively while missing countless easy shots. The starters scored just 28 second-half points, including a combined 3 from Courtney Lee and Brandon Bass.
“We’re still trying to put four quarters together and that’s what we need to do,’’ Pierce said. “You can’t play every other quarter and expect to win games. We have to be a better defensive team. We can’t give up layups in transition. We took a step back tonight. If we want to be a consistent ball club, we have to do it for all four quarters. The one thing I know we can control is our effort and our defense.’’