BOSTON — Celtics coach Doc Rivers was asked Friday night to point to reasons his team has won five straight games.
“I think there’s a lot of little things,” Rivers said after Boston defeated the Houston Rockets 103-91. “We’ve decided to defend as a group, full-time, and stay committed to it. Avery’s (Bradley) return (from shoulder surgery) has helped, the second unit now (is) a second unit — Jet’s (Jason Terry) not in the first unit, or Courtney (Lee), it’s solidified who the second unit is.
“Now, when we practice, that group’s always together, so I think there’s a lot of little things to it.”
Wednesday night, the bench outscored the starters 47-40 in a win over Phoenix. Friday night, the bench, again led by rookie Jared Sullinger, was again a key, totaling 40 points.
Wednesday, the Celtics were hit by a 17-0 run in the second half and had to escape against the Suns. Friday night, in the second game of a season-long five-game homestand, they were up by 17 in the third quarter and by 14 in the fourth before a 12-0 Houston run cut it to two.
But Paul Pierce, allowed plenty of rest because of the play of the bench, hit a tough jumper to trigger an 11-2 run that included an old-fashioned 3-point play by Pierce with 5:57 left. That gave the Celtics a 10-point lead and three consecutive Kevin Garnett baskets broke it wide open; Garnett also the beneficiary of proper rest.
In short, it all seems to be working, something noticed by former Celtics star and current Rockets coach Kevin McHale, whose new team beat his old team in Houston last month.
“They’re playing crisper, they’re moving the ball better and they have a little swagger about them,” McHale said. “They’re really playing much better basketball than they were just two weeks ago. I don’t know if it was Bradley coming back and he’s fully healthy now, I don’t know? They are just a better basketball team now.”
The Celtics are also playing defense, Friday night holding the league’s top scoring team to 91 and allowing the five opponents in the streak 84.4 points per game. Bradley returned a game before the streak began.
Pierce, playing 29 minutes, led the Celtics with 23 points and six rebounds, while Garnett had 17 and seven boards and Rajon Rondo 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds. Those were the starters; Sullinger, averaging 10.2 rebounds the past five games, had his second straight double-double (third of the season) with 14 points and 11 rebounds and Lee also had 14 points.
With Bradley leading the way on defense, the Celtics guards helped end James Harden’s streak of 14 straight 25-point games, a run that started after he failed to get 25 against Boston last month. Harden scored 24 points Friday night but was just 9 for 19 from the floor, 2 for 8 from 3-point range.
Chandler Parsons had 18 points and Harvard product Jeremy Lin 12 points, six assists and five rebounds for the Rockets, who killed themselves by going what McHale called “a stunning 12 for 29 from the foul line,” and 9 for 33 from 3-point range.
Big man Omer Asik had 11 rebounds for Houston, but was just 1 for 8 from the foul line. He had the first two baskets of the game and Rivers made it clear to his players to send Asik to the line, where he came in at 54 percent.
Houston lost its second straight after a five-game winning streak.
After the Celtics led by three at the end of the first quarter (with the help of Houston going 1 for 6 from the foul line), the bench was responsible for blowing the game open in the second quarter. Sullinger had eight points and five rebounds, Lee and Jason Terry hit 3-pointer and Jeff Green scored six points.
The lead was eight at the break and the Celtics came out with nine straight points, the first eight by Pierce, one more than he had in the first half. The lead was 17 when the Rockets scored seven straight points, but Houston couldn’t get it any closer in the quarter. Then came the rally in the fourth.
NOTES: Rivers defended Garnett, saying his player didn’t say anything about Carmelo Anthony’s wife before their near-confrontation in New York on Monday. “Well, No. 1, I know what’s been reported did not happen,” Rivers said on Boston radio station WEEI. “I know that as a fact.” … McHale laughed off the Garnett-Anthony thing, saying it was nothing compared to the old days. “None of our guys are fighters, believe me,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “Just go out and play basketball. The rest of that stuff is absolutely silly. So he talked some smack. Big deal. Everybody talked smack.” McHale played with Larry Bird, a king of trash talking. … The Rockets visit Philadelphia on Saturday night to complete a three-game road trip.” .. The Celtics host Charlotte Monday in Game 3 of the homestand. … A “Let’s Go Patriots” video was shown in the second quarter, followed by a face in the crowd shot of New England wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. … Rivers addressed a group of Red Sox prospects this week as part of their Boston orientation. “The first thing I told them was I didn’t talk to them last year, so I wasn’t responsible for any of (the 69-93) season,” he quipped.