HOUSTON The Boston Celtics are tripped up on the first leg of their Texas two-step by the Houston Rockets who used a strong third quarter surge to take control before handing the C's a 101-89 loss.
The Rockets were led by James Harden's 21 points in addition to Greg Smith chipping in 20 points off the bench. Boston's Paul Pierce had a team-high 18 points while Rajon Rondo tallied 15 points and 13 assists.
Boston (12-10) doesn't have much time to think about what went wrong against the Rockets (11-11), not with a road game at Western conference power San Antonio Saturday night.
Houston for the most part owned the second half of this game, and with it came away with their second straight victory under head coach and former Celtic Kevin McHale who returned to the team recently after the death of his daughter.
The strong play by Boston in the second quarter was wiped out quickly in the third as the Rockets opened the quarter with a 20-9 run to take a 63-54 lead.
A 3-point play by Rondo made it a 63-57 game, but it was clear that the game's momentum had taken a major swing in favor of the home team.
Houston's start was fueled by their ability to score in transition. After tallying a total of 12 fast-break points in the first half, it took less than six minutes for them to register six fast-break points - equal to their average in the first two quarters of play. They would finish the game with 25 fast-break points compared to 11 for Boston.
For too many stretches of play, Boston looked very much like a team that still hadn't quite recovered from a double overtime thriller in defeating Dallas on Wednesday.
Houston is the youngest team in the NBA and looked a step (or two, or three or ) quicker than Boston most of the first quarter.
Even with a lineup change designed to bolster Boston's defense - Courtney Lee in for Jason Terry - the Celtics still had trouble keeping the Rockets from getting out in transition.
Boston tried to go to Kevin Garnett early, but Houston's Omer Asik did a nice job of not allowing Garnett to get too deep in the post while also contesting his perimeter jumpers which heavily factored in Garnett missing five of his first six shots from the field.
Garnett finished with 14 points and five rebounds with a large chunk of his points coming while guarded by Smith.
Houston led by as many as 13 points in the first, but the Celtics chipped away at Houston's lead to cut Boston's lead after the first quarter down to 27-19.
Boston played the Rockets to a near standstill during the first four or five minutes of the second quarter, which isn't a good thing when you're facing the kind of deficit they were looking.
But that soon changed as the Celtics began to string together defensive stops and timely baskets like the wide open corner 3-pointer by Jason Terry to tie the game at 32.
Following another stop, Rondo drove into the lane for a lay-up to give the Celtics their first lead of the game with 6:10 to play in the half.
It was all part of an 18-2 Celtics run in the quarter that eventually ended with Boston leading 45-43 at the half.