Thirteen seconds remained in a game the Boston Celtics had already let slip through their fingers. Still trailing by only three points, the Celtics ran an intricate out-of-bounds play using Paul Pierce as a decoy while Michael Finley spotted up in the corner. As Finley let loose the potentially game-tying shot, the whistle blew: Kendrick Perkins had been called for a foul.
The moving screen was the final straw that broke the Celtics’ backs, but the Celtics lost the game far before Perkins hip-checked Chase Budinger. A little effort, at all, all game long, was all it would have taken to defeat a broken-down Houston Rockets club. Decimated by injuries to the point that Chase Budinger and Jermaine Taylor — both soon coming to a summer league roster near you — were in the starting lineup, the Rockets nonetheless outlasted Boston in the Boston Garden. For the second straight game, the Celtics were out-executed down the stretch, at home, by a far less-experienced team. Losing at home has been a malady that has harmed Boston all season, but losing close games to young teams is even more troubling.
With time running down as the Celtics nursed a three-point lead in the fourth quarter, and Aaron Brooks dribbling aimlessly at the top of the key, it looked like Boston would escape with the win. But the Celtics didn’t deserve to win, and Brooks’ step-back three-pointer barely evaded the outstretched hand of Tony Allen, snapping through the nets and knotting the score at 109. Boston would have another chance, but Paul Pierce — despite being defended by burly center Chuck Hayes — isolated and settled for a pullup jumper, drawing only iron and keeping the Rockets alive for overtime.
Rajon Rondo (23 points, 10 assists, 5 steals) led the way for the Celtics, dazzling with an array of points, assists and steals, in the process passing Bob Cousy for the Celtics’ single-season assists record. Paul Pierce notched 27 points, but scoring while Chase Budinger defends you is like riding a bike with the training wheels on — anyone can do it. Kendrick Perkins was good, registering 15 points, but had only five rebounds for a Celtics squad that was outrebounded by the Rockets’ crew of Mighty Midgets. Rasheed Wallace (11 points, 8 rebounds) and Tony Allen (12 points, 5 rebounds, 5 steals) were both dynamic off the bench, supplying energy for a team that rarely displayed any on a night that should be remembered as one of the two or three worst losses the C’s have had this season.
Only for a short stretch, at the beginning of the fourth quarter, did the Celtics look poised to piece together a solid win. Ironically, against a Rockets team playing mostly unwanted retreads, it took a lineup of benchwarmers for the Celtics to finally seize control. Tony Allen, Michael Finley, Shelden Williams, and Rasheed Wallace — all unwanted by either coaches and/or fans within the past month – combined with Rajon Rondo to form a five-man crew that put together a 15-4 run, giving Boston a 98-91 lead and apparent command.
But the command was short-lived, as the Rockets clawed back into the game and, eventually, snatched the lead. Give the Rockets credit, for battling as an undermanned team on the road, but the Celtics deserved every boo that rained down from the Boston Garden crowd as the loss became final.