Tomase: James Harden, beat-up Rockets still present a test for Celtics

John Tomase
December 28, 2017 - 12:52 pm
James Harden

Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports


Want to gauge the Celtics' place among the upper reaches of the NBA now that their blistering 16-2 start has given way to a more reasonable 12-8 stretch?

You won't get an answer tonight.

What looked like a marquee matchup with the Houston Rockets instead will be a battle of injury-riddled contenders. The Houston Rockets come to town with a legitimate case as the best team in basketball, though they've lost three straight since ripping off 14 consecutive wins following the return of point guard Chris Paul. They'll be without Paul and big man Clint Capela, among others.

The Celtics, meanwhile, look more like a Best of the Rest group. Though they remain the No. 1 seed in the East, their flaws have become more glaring. Their defense and rebounding, so stout in the early stages, now rate as inconsistent and intermittent. Both will be tested by a Rockets club that averages a league-high 115.1 points a game.

The C's have become over-reliant on the individual brilliance of guard Kyrie Irving, who ranks ninth in scoring at 24.6 points a game. They were going to feel the loss of All-Star free agent Gordon Hayward at some point, and that time is now. With forward Marcus Morris struggling to recover from a knee injury and second-year man Jaylen Brown slowed by knee and Achilles injuries, the Celtics basically possess two other reliable scoring options -- big man Al Horford and 19-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum.

The former is a facilitator -- his 5.3 assists lead the team -- while the latter is shooting nearly 50 percent on 3-pointers while averaging 14 points on only nine shots a game. His confidence continues to grow with each passing contest. Whereas Tatum was basically a jump shooter and transition scorer in the early going, he has become much more assertive off the dribble in the last month, scoring a series of acrobatic baskets in Wednesday's victory over the Hornets.

The Rockets present a challenge, though they're banged up, too. They announced on Thursday that Paul will miss the game with a left adductor strain. Houston is 15-1 with Paul on the floor and 10-6 without him. They'll be without Capela, who will miss at least two games after taking a Steven Adams elbow to the eye and suffering an orbital fracture in Monday's loss to the Thunder. Also sidelined: forwards Luc Mbah a Moute (shoulder) and Troy Williams (knee).

So what does Houston have left? Start with MVP candidate James Harden, a do-it-all superstar who leads the NBA in scoring (32.4) and ranks third in assists (9.2). The Celtics will have their hands full with Harden alone.

The rest of the roster is thin. Capela normally provides rim protection and an offensive threat on lobs. Without him and Mbah a Moute, the defense suffers significantly. Harden, Trevor Ariza, and Eric Gordon have played heavy minutes recently, and don't be surprised if Houston goes small, an approach that gave the Celtics trouble down the stretch of Sunday's loss to the Wizards.

The key for the Celtics will be getting something from the second unit. When guards Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier are making shots, the C's can breathe. When they're not, coach Brad Stevens is forced to play Irving a little more than he'd like, lest the reserves fritter away another early lead.

In any event, what once shaped up as a potential measuring stick now looks more like a battle of attrition, with both teams fighting injury. Still, the presence of Harden makes this one worth watching.

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