Boston Celtics – Stopping James Harden & Declaring Intention

It’s not a special season for the Boston Celtics, fighting to stay above .500 for most of its first half. Beating the Houston Rockets and containing James Harden sends a message that’s more than about defense and toughness. It tells the story of a team that still thinks it’s good enough for a deep playoff run.

When you look at the teams that have beaten the Rockets in recent weeks, these mostly are teams that have plans of going big this season. The San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder for example. Now the Celtics, only 19-17 but on the back of a five game winning streak. Is there more to this team than the first couple of months suggested?

One of the keys in the last few wins and especially in the 103-91 one over the Rockets was the transition game. They scored 20 points on transition, their most efficient performance of the season, scoring 1.67 per possession, in comparison with their 1.07 average when entering the game, good enough for 23rd in the NBA.

There were also the surprising contributions, which the Celtics don’t usually get a lot of. Jared Sullinger, a rookie who has been mentioned in a few trade scenarios, finished the game with 14 points and 11 rebounds, making 7-8 from the field. He’s averaging a double-double (10.2 points & rebounds) during the current win streak, and the Celtics are much better when he’s on the floor, outscoring opponents by an average of 23 points per 48 minutes during his stretches. They outscored the Rockets by 11 points during Sullinger’s 27 minutes on the floor.

Rajon Rondo didn’t have a huge game, 13 points and 8 assists, but the problems he gave Jeremy Lin were key in creating open looks for so many of the others, besides the excellent defense the Celtics were playing. Jeremy Lin, as always, couldn’t keep up with one of the elite point guards in the NBA, creating too many problems for the Rockets on defense. Paul Pierce finished with 23 points on only 29 minutes while Kevin Garnett, way past the whole Carmelo Anthony saga, finished with 17 points and 8 rebounds.

Stopping James Harden from feeling comfortable and pushing him towards his selfish tendencies was a game plan that worked very well for the Celtics, disrupting the Rockets’ offense enough to make them look pretty bad during certain stretches. Harden finished with 24 points, ending his 25 or more streak of 14 games while managing an awful 2-8 from beyond the arc, part of a very bad shooting night for the Rockets: 43.8% from the field and 27.3% from beyond the arc.

The worst was the free throw shooting, one of the worse in recent years: Since 1986, only three other teams have taken more than 29 shots from the line and finished with a poorer success ratio of 41.4%, as the Rockets made only 12 of their shots. The Lakers had such a night on the opening game of the season, making 12 of their 31 shots in the loss to Dallas. Needless to say, all previous teams lost in such horrendous displays.

Maybe there’s more to this Boston Celtics team, and it won’t be too surprising to see them succeed in the postseason, if they continue to get the kind of contribution they’ve been getting from the bench over the last two weeks. Not good enough for a title run, but a bit better than what they previously looked like this season.

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