By A. Sherrod Blakely
HOUSTON Leave it to Doc Rivers to unearth a silver lining in an otherwise dismal 93-77 loss to the Houston Rockets.
"Well, we accomplished one thing," the Celtics coach said. "Minutes played by the regulars were low."
So were the Celtics' points, rebounds, assists, effort, energy . . .
It was a game that as lopsided as the final score was, the Rocket's dominance of the C's was even more decisive.
Boston fell behind by as many as 29 points, and seemed well on their way to suffering their largest defeat of the season which remains a 17-point loss at Phoenix on Jan. 28.
A Jeff Green lay-up with 29.5 seconds to play was just what the C's needed to avoid that dubious distinction.
Whether it was 16 points or 60 points, the Celtics were beaten badly in every way imaginable by a Rockets team that's fighting to move up to the eighth and final playoff slot out West.
"We just got our ass kicked; point-blank," said Boston's Glen Davis, who had 16 points and seven rebounds off the bench. "They just out-manned us. They beat us bad. We couldn't' get a stop. They were making every shot. When we needed a shot, they made a shot."
Fortunately for the Celtics (48-19), Friday's loss won't have any impact in their chase for the top record in the Eastern Conference as the Chicago Bulls (49-19) also lost on Friday which means the Bulls will maintain their half-game lead over the Celtics.
Regardless of where the loss put the C's in terms of the top record in the East, a disturbing trend is developing at a time when the C's need to string together as many strong performances as possible.
Friday's loss was Boston's fourth in the last six games, with all of those defeats coming against teams either out of the playoff hunt or fighting for one of the last playoff spots in their respective conference.
It's not a coincidence that the Celtics struggles come at a time when some players are returning to the lineup, others are trying to understand their changing role with the team, all the while game-planning for opponents who have far more at stake on most nights than the Celtics, evident by most playing with the kind of intensity and passion you expect a team that's trying to claw their way into the postseason will bring to the game.
"This component, you're dealing with a lot of different variables," said Boston's Kevin Garnett. "Mixing in, putting things together we're not going to make any excuses. We gotta figure it out, and try to put it together as soon as possible and get back to winning."
While there have been a number of issues that have impacted the Celtics lack of success lately, on Friday it came down to their inability to make shots early in the game.
As much you the Rockets deserve credit for doing a solid job defensively, Rivers showed his team video at halftime of the many shots they took in the first half that should have been made.
"We showed them (at the half) seven, point-blank baskets that didn't go in," Rivers said. "I thought we got a little frustrated because we were missing shots."
That frustration offensively carried over into the way the C's defended, which is a recipe for defeat more often than not.
When asked about whether the offensive woes impacted the team's defense, Garnett said, "I want to say no because we are a defensive team and we can't let offense dictate defense. But it certainly seemed that way. They got into an early rhythm, and it was hard to turn them off."
Several Rockets players gave the Celtics problems, but none more than Houston's backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin who had 20 and 25 points, respectively.
Not only were the Celtics struggling to score and get defensive stops.
They couldn't even get into the heads of the opposing team's younger players, something the C's are one of the best at in the NBA.
When you look at the way the Celtics were struggling, it was just a matter of time before Garnett would get into it with one of Houston's young bigs, probably get a technical foul and just like that, the C's would start rolling.
That is indeed how things played out - sort of.
Garnett and Houston's Chuck Hayes had an exchange in the second quarter that resulted in both players being whistled for a double technical.
Moments later, Glen Davis was shoved from behind into the front row near the basket. He immediately got up and started to charge towards the man who pushed him, Jordan Hill.
But Rondo showed some heads-up thinking and came into between Davis before he reached Hill.
Hill was charged with a personal foul, while Davis was whistled for a technical foul.
Even when Martin made the technical foul free throw, you had the sense that, based on the past, the Celtics were about to go on a nice run and make this game competitive.
Oh, there was a run by the Rockets.
Boston retained the ball after Martin's free throw, but immediately gave it away when Hayes stole the ball from Garnett.
And moments after that, Garnett was whistled for a personal foul that sent Martin back to the line for two more free throws.
The Celtics continued to fall further and further behind, as Rivers emptied the bench in the fourth quarter with eye towards tonight's game at New Orleans.
"I know this team, and I know what type of competitors they are," said Paul Pierce. "We don't really worry about the record and how we play in back-to-backs. After a humiliating loss like this, I know we'll bounce back (against New Orleans)."