The Celtics’ comeback to beat the Rockets was incredibly strange. Here’s how it happened

BOSTON — When trying to comprehend something as improbable as a 26-point comeback against one of the best teams in the league, it’s helpful to find an entry point. The big run, the momentum-turning play, the key tactical adjustment that unlocks a tidal wave of points and emotions…that kind of thing.

The problem on Thursday night was the sheer volume of things that allowed the Celtics to erase that lopsided deficit and steal a 99-98 victory over the Houston Rockets in a game they didn’t lead until the final seconds. Where does one even begin?

Brad Stevens, in the most Brad Stevens thing possible, figured it began at the start of the second half when a little-used wing named Abdel Nader joined the starting lineup. Nader took four shots and missed them all in just over six minutes of action, but he did manage to grab a couple of rebounds.

“I thought even though he did some things that I’m sure he’d like to have back, I thought Nader came in and gave us a great energy lift,” Stevens said. “I didn’t think we looked like we were matching their level in the first half, and that’s why we started him in the second. And even though he missed a couple of shots in the second, he got some boards back, he was active, and it kind of got us started.”

If nothing else, the Celtics managed to play even with the Rockets during Nader’s minutes, which was in fact a massive swing from the first half when Houston got anything it wanted and locked in defensively. So that was a start even though the Houston lead was still in the 20s.

Perhaps it was the sudden viability of Marcus Morris, who has been battling a knee injury and was working on a minutes restriction. Like the rest of the Cs, Morris was not effective at all in the first half. But in the second, he came alive and buried a three-pointer that sliced the lead all the way down to 13 points. That brought the crowd, which had been simmering, to a full boil.

“They were so into it, they’re supporting us, their energy was unbelievable; it was about as loud as I’ve seen our arena get,” Al Horford said. “I just feel like that really drove us because you’re looking going into halftime and you can make excuses; the back to back, you’re tired. You just think about putting on a good show for the fans and see what we do, ourselves, as a group.”

At that point, it was the Celtics who were the aggressors. Or as Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni put it: “We were like them in the first half, and they were like us in the second.”

So now it was a ballgame, but what kind of game was it going to be? If the first half was a breeze, the second was becoming a battle of attrition. Both teams were short-handed, but it was the Rockets who began to tire. 

Enter Shane Larkin and Terry Rozier, a pair of ball-hawking guards who hound opposing ball-handlers for 94 feet and bleed precious seconds off the shot clock. This proved particularly troublesome for the depleted Rockets, who were without Chris Paul and have been relying on James Harden and Eric Gordon for massive amounts of minutes and production in CP3’s absence.

“We didn’t move. We didn’t push,” D’Antoni said. “We fell into them and they were up on us. The only way to combat that is, you got to go, and we didn’t have the legs or the energy to be able to combat it. They were up in us, and we didn’t do anything to get around it.”

The lead dwindled into the single digits, and that’s when things truly got nuts. Every possession was chaotic. Adding to the chaos was the absence of Mark Lindsay, a ref assigned to the game who came down with back spasms, leaving the game in the hands of just two officials.

As Kyrie Irving asked before tipoff, “There’s just two of y’all tonight?”

Your opinion about the work of Tony Brothers and Gediminas Petraitis may vary.

“You can’t have two officials in a professional game,” Harden said. “There’s a lot of no-calls that needed to be called because that changed the dynamic of the game. Fast break points, turnovers, or whatever the case may be, but it’s a professional game. National TV. Can’t happen.”

“It’s going to make a difference,” Irving said. “That’s why we have three refs. Both teams had to play in that realm. At times it went in their favor at times it went in our favor. It did make a difference.”

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