1. The Celtics actually did a decent job on James Harden until the fourth quarter: Harden has been playing out of his mind lately (averaging 35 ppg in December) and he picked up right where he left off on that front with 17 first-quarter points on Thursday night thanks a ton of contested stepback 3s he managed to knock down. Brad Stevens tends to lean towards playing 1-on-1 defense and living with the results and Harden took advantage of that strategy early on. Amazingly, there was a stretch in the middle two quarters in which the All-Star missed 10 straight shots as the C’s got up into his airspace more and did well to contest drives.
Still, the emerging MVP candidate found his rhythm late, both from beyond the arc and at the free throw line. He took all 17 of his free throw attempts in the second half as the C’s fouled him twice on 3-point attempts, giving Houston plenty of pivotal points (16 in the fourth quarter) to help them pull away late. All in all, it was another explosive performance by a guard against the Celtics this year. Marcus Smart has had plenty of success slowing down Harden in recent seasons but the Rockets forced so much switching he didn’t really get much of a chance to make an impact on that front tonight. The final line? 45 points, a career-high nine 3-pointers, 14-of-17 at the line and just a plus-3 overall. For as good as he was, he didn’t win this game by himself. His teammates were just as pivotal, which brings us to No. 2.
2. The Rockets bench wiped the floor with the Celtics bench: I’ll have a more in-depth column