Improving Rockets snap Celtics' win streak
BOSTON -- The Houston Rockets were bad enough to get coach Kevin McHale fired 11 games into the season.
Now, the Rockets, playing under interim coach JB Bickerstaff, have become a solid contender for a playoff spot and sit in the seventh spot in the Western Conference.
"It's getting there," James Harden said Friday night after his Rockets, five days after ending the Toronto Raptors' 12-game home winning streak, put an end to the Boston Celtics' 14-game home run with a 102-98 victory.
"We have one more game tomorrow to finish the road trip off the right way," said Harden, who scored nine of his 32 points in the final 3:09 to hold on for the win.
The Rockets are in Charlotte on Saturday night, looking to finish off a 4-0 trip. They are 29-25 under Bickerstaff -- and Harden is on fire.
Harden, who was at anything but his best prior to the McHale firing, is averaging 34.5 points per game over the last 13. He's been getting plenty of help from big man Dwight Howard, who had 12 points and 12 rebounds Friday after coming in averaging 17.9 points and 12.8 boards over those previous 12.
"I think it's a comfort level now," Bickerstaff said of his team surviving late-game situations.
Boston's home winning streak was the franchise's longest since an 18-game run in 1990-91 -- its longest at TD Garden.
"We didn't really know what it felt like," Isaiah Thomas said of losing at home for the first time since Jan. 6. "It was tough getting that feeling again, especially at home. I feel like we let our fans down."
The Celtics, playing a four-guard offense after losing forward Jae Crowder to a right ankle sprain in the third quarter, used an 8-0 run to cut a 10-point deficit to two with 6:17 left. The Rockets also went small and then used a 10-4 spurt to maintain control, but needed Harden's free-throw shooting to put the game away.
The Celtics thought they had cut their deficit to four when Avery Bradley stole the ball and laid it in. but he touched the ball on the rim, leaving the Houston lead at six with 30.2 seconds remaining.
The loss was only the sixth in the last 23 games for the Celtics (39-27), who hold down the third spot in the East.
Houston forward Michael Beasley ended the third quarter with a put-back and then scored 10 of his 18 points in the first 3:44 of the fourth to give the Rockets a 10-point lead.
Beasley, who started this season in China, also had eight rebounds despite playing just under 15 minutes.
"He crushed us. He crushed us. He was great," said Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
Said Beasley: "I'm starting to feel comfortable, my teammates are making it easy. JB put me in the right spots and told me to attack. I felt pretty good."
Houston 6-1 point guard Patrick Beverley matched his career high with 12 rebounds and also had four assists to go with eight points.
Thomas, continuing his torrid offensive run, led the Celtics with 30 points, forward Jared Sullinger, the only bigger player working with the four guards, had 24 points and 12 rebounds.
Stevens said Crowder's injury didn't appear to be serious, adding Crowder will undergo an MRI on Saturday. "I got mostly positive vibes as I was talking to him," the coach said.
Said Crowder: "I was on a fast break, and I came down in an awkward way, and I got up and I didn't feel good. Come to find out I just sprained it. High ankle sprain."
Thomas, who had just one turnover over the previous four games, was guilty of six and had only two assists in the game.
Houston took a 34-32 lead with 6:17 left in the first half and never trailed after that.
NOTES: Teammates are starting to push G Evan Turner for the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award. F Jared Sullinger sent out a tweet Wednesday night lauding Turner, who had nine assists, seven rebounds and five steals Friday night. ... G Andrew Goudelock, back from China with a two-year contract and once nicknamed "Mini Mamba" by then-Lakers teammate Kobe "Black Mamba" Bryant, was in uniform for the first time with the Rockets but didn't play. ... Boston F Kelly Olynyk's injured right shoulder still wasn't ready and he missed his 11th straight game. ... Former Bulls head coach and Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau was at Boston's Thursday practice. ... Houston F/C Donatas Motiejunas, kicked in the shin on Wednesday night in Philadelphia, was able to play but only logged 10:15. ... Rookie G Terry Rozier got serious playing time with Boston and had seven rebounds and three assists in 10:16.