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NBA — Celtics overcome 26-point deficit to beat slumping Rockets

BOSTON – Due to their grueling December schedule so obviously conspiring against them in recent weeks, the Boston Celtics had every reason to roll over on Thursday night. The fresh-legged Houston Rockets had built a 26-point first-half lead, and Boston seemed to have no answer for containing James Harden and his teammates.

But on the second night of a back-to-back while playing shorthanded, the Celtics displayed some of the resiliency that decorated their 16-game winning streak earlier this season. Fueled almost entirely by energy on the defensive end – and aided by two James Harden offensive fouls in the final seconds – the Celtics improbably rallied for a 99-98 triumph at TD Garden.

In the closing seconds, it was Marcus Smart who stole the win.

Smart twice got James Harden to commit offensive fouls over the final 7.3 seconds of play. The first gave the Celtics the ball down by one point, and Al Horford muscled home a floater from the baseline to put Boston out front for the first time all night.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, Harden was 0-for-7 from the field with four turnovers when defended by Marcus Smart tonight.

The Rockets were up 20 after one quarter, pushed their lead as high as 26, and led by 24 at the intermission. But Boston improbably responded with an energy-filled third quarter in which they outscored the Rockets 31-16 to pull within single digits heading to the final frame.

The Celtics seemed destined to look back and lament missed opportunities in the final three minutes. After finally surging within one possession, Kyrie Irving missed a 3-pointer that could have put Boston out front, then later was too strong with a layup that could have tied the game.

He wasn’t the only one. Marcus Smart was too strong with a late-game 3-pointer and both Irving and Horford had turnovers over the final 2:27.

But the Celtics never stopped fighting. Repeatedly down 3, Stevens and the Celtics elected to take 2-point baskets and try to force the Rockets into an error. It finally happened with 7.3 seconds to go when, after a Jayson Tatum dunk, Harden flattened Smart trying to shake free for the inbounds.

After Horford’s go-ahead basket, Harden got whistled again to the joy of a frenzied TD Garden.

Irving finished with a team-high 26 points. Harden led all scorers with 34.

The Rockets were shorthanded as well, playing without point guard Chris Paul, who missed his third straight game due to a left adductor strain suffered in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers last week. Houston had lost its previous two games without Paul, continuing a theme where the team struggled without the veteran point guard on the court this season. Before the loss to the Lakers, the Rockets had been 15-0 when Paul played this season.

Boston was without starting shooting guard Jaylen Brown, who missed his second consecutive game with right knee soreness, and rookie forward Semi Ojeleye, who missed his second straight game with back soreness.

Entering tonight, the Rockets were 179-0 over the last 20 seasons in games in which they led by at least 25 points. The Celtics last overcame a deficit of more than 25 points on April 13, 2016, when they defeated the Miami Heat despite a 26-point deficit.

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