HOUSTON — One night after choking the life out of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Boston Celtics did the same to another Western Conference contender, boosting their reputation as a burgeoning defensive juggernaut.
Celtics guard Avery Bradley scored 21 points off the bench and the Celtics turned a pair of backbreaking runs into a 111-95 victory over the struggling Houston Rockets on Monday night at Toyota Center.
Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas added 23 points and six assists as Boston (6-4) erased what was once a 15-point deficit with a 15-0 blitz late in the second quarter, a spurt that included eight points from Bradley.
Boston put the game on ice by closing the third quarter with another 15-0 run, turning a 72-68 lead into an 87-68 runaway entering the fourth.
Forward Jae Crowder added 16 points for the Celtics, whose ball-hawking halfcourt defense set the tone for the staggering momentum swing. Boston scored a whopping 39 points off 22 Rockets turnovers and ran Houston (4-7) ragged with 22 fast-break points and 16 steals.
“One thing that we’ve been working on since the beginning of the year is being able to finish on the break as far as making the right play, if it’s a finish or making the next pass,” Bradley said. “I feel like we’re doing a good job with that.”
Rockets forward Trevor Ariza paired 19 points (on 4-of-10 3-point shooting) with nine rebounds but had four turnovers. Houston guards James Harden (16 points) and Ty Lawson added four turnovers apiece.
Houston appeared inspired early, particularly defensively, harassing the Celtics into a series of miscues and hurried shots beginning with the close of the first quarter. The Rockets carried that surge into the second quarter, opening a 42-27 lead with a 14-3 run capped by an Ariza three-point play and a transition basket by Lawson following a Corey Brewer steal.
But the Celtics maintained contact, first with an 11-2 spurt that cut the deficit to 44-38, and also after the Rockets rebuilt their lead to 53-40 with their first devastating run. Forward Amir Johnson started the push with a transition dunk at that 2:45 mark, and Bradley capped it with a 3.
“We’re hanging our head,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “Things aren’t going our way and we hang our head. We haven’t put together really good basketball all year long.”
Said Rockets center Dwight Howard, who grabbed 12 rebounds: “Yes, it has happened but we can’t hang our heads. When we make a mistake we’ve got to get back down the floor. We’ve got to trust each other more. We just can’t hold our heads when something bad happens.”
Harden pulled the Rockets to within four points with his 3-pointer at the 3:36 mark of the third quarter before the Celtics seized the contest. Crowder added a layup following yet another backdoor cut and Bradley added consecutive 3s to bump the advantage to 85-68. Celtics reserve center Kelly Olynyk beat the buzzer with a running scoop shot, and Boston later opened a 103-74 lead in the fourth period while coasting.
Celtics guard Marcus Smart recorded team highs in rebounds (nine), assists (six), and steals (five). Boston, which entered Monday fourth in the NBA in defensive rating, has won five of six and claimed its first victory in Houston since March 19, 2010.
“We didn’t defend very well the first 15 minutes and then we defended for about 24 straight,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We really defended in that time.”
NOTES: Stevens will remain judicious with Bradley, who logged 26 minutes off the bench on Sunday night in his first action after missing two games with a strained left calf. Bradley finished with 14 points and four assists in a 100-85 win over the Thunder. … Houston coach Kevin McHale continued to bemoan the Rockets’ lack of defense, refusing to give credit to anyone for consistent effort aside from C Dwight Howard. The Rockets entered Monday ranked 29th in defensive rating at 108.9 points allowed per 100 possessions. “It ain’t just Ty and James,” McHale said of starting guards Ty Lawson and James Harden. “You can name a bunch of other people.”