The Celtics found their defensive identity again in win over Rockets

Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Smart has a history of getting under James Harden’s skin. Look no further than last December’s matchup with the Rockets in Houston. The hosts seemingly had a win wrapped up, holding the ball and a 107-104 edge with 20 seconds remaining. Harden was facing a trap from Smart and Avery Bradley near halfcourt and didn’t handle the pressure well. He tried to get free and connected with an elbow to Smart’s face in the process, giving the Celtics the ball and a chance to win after a flagrant 1 foul was whistled.

The script barely changed at the TD Garden this time around on Thursday night. The Rockets led in crunch time when Smart goaded Harden into an offensive foul yet again, this time not once but twice in the final seven seconds on inbounds plays. The miscues opened the door to a Celtics 99-98 win over the Rockets and put an exclamation point on a sensational defensive performance by the hosts in the second half against the NBA’s best offense and top scorer.

Harden shot a horrific 3-of-17 from the field after intermission and added five turnovers in 21 minutes, setting the tone for a Rockets offense that only mustered 36 points over the game’s final 24 minutes.

In order to erase a 26-point first half deficit for the comeback win, the Celtics needed to get back to their roots, and that’s exactly what they did against Harden and the Rockets.