If you didn't tune in for the Rockets' 123-120 win over the Celtics on Saturday night, shame on you. You missed a flat-out classic. I know you aren't supposed to throw that word around for a regular-season game, but I'm telling you, this game, man. Unbelievable. If the NBA were to get seven games like that in a playoff series, or even five or six, the TV ratings would shoot into orbit.
If only we could do the logical thing and restructure the playoffs.
More on that this week, so check back.
For now, let's stay with what was one of the best games we've seen in a long time, and what it means moving forward. First, the Celtics look like they're back as a fringe title contender. It's asking a lot because they don't have the collective offensive star power of a Houston or Golden State and thus have a much smaller margin for error, but clearly when they play to their peak, they can hang with, and beat, the very best.
Since the break, Boston is 4-1, albeit against four non-playoff teams -- and the offense that was starting to rely heavily, too heavily, on Kyrie Irving creating everything, has opened up again. Over the last five they're averaging a tick under 119 points per game. On Saturday they were wonderfully balanced -- 21 points for Marcus Morris, 18 each for Irving and Greg Monroe, 17 for Terry Rozier, 12 for Jayson Tatum, 11 for Marcus Smart, 10 for Al Horford (who really was pretty bad offensively all night), nine for Jaylen Brown.
I'd like to see the 24 assists the Celtics tallied on Saturday even raise a bit more, maybe closer to 27 or 28. They could do that much simply by making a few more cuts to the basket. Given their perimeter athleticism and the passing ability of Horford, they should not be the 24th ranked cutting team in the league, per Synergy. Ultimately, the Celtics are not going to move the ball like the Warriors, but they make over 300 passes a game and should be able to rack up more than the 22.7 assists a night they average if they're smart and attacking with those passes. The Wizards, who like the Celtics with Kyrie can fall into relying too much on John Wall, are seeing the benefits of moving the ball more in Wall's absence.
Little things like that take good teams to great.
Defensively, the Celtics made James Harden work hard for his inefficient 26 points, forcing him into a 6-for-18 night, including 3 of 12 from three. That's the best you can do against that guy. Chris Paul only had 15. The Celtics have been the No. 1 defensive team pretty much all year, but they haven't felt like it for some time. Houston put 123 on them, yes, but Houston can put 123 on a mobilized brick wall. The effort was there. The rotations were there. One possession late in the fourth summed up what a No. 1 defense looks like.
You hear about defenses having to make "multiple efforts" if they're serious about getting stops. This is exactly what that means. On this one possession, Boston stopped the best offensive team in the league three separate times. First, Harden had the ball at the top, and eventually made his move off the pick-and-roll, but Horford gave ground and the second level walled him off in the paint, knocking the ball loose for good measure. That was the first stop.
Everyone scrambled for the ball, and when Houston came up with it, you figured an open three was inevitable with all the chaos. The pass was made to Trevor Ariza, who looked ready to fire when the pass was in the air, but there was Horford again, his second big-tie effort, flying out to thwart a shot attempt while also staying grounded to resist the show-and-go drive. That was the second stop.
So Ariza moved it back to Eric Gordon, who was on fire all night. Gordon had a head of steam going straight downhill, and almost impossible position for a defender with today's no-touch rules, and still Jayson Tatum stayed with him one-on-one, stone-walling his drive and staying grounded at the rim without fouling. That's the third stop. It was an absolute championship defensive possession against one of the two best offensive teams in history.
When Boston was rolling early into the year, they were playing defense like this every night, every possession, no matter who they were going against. They don't yet have enough fully-formed talent to win at the highest level any other way.
In the end, Houston was just too much. Ariza hit two huge threes and had 21 points. Gordon, as mentioned, was a killer, scoring 29 points on 7 of 11 from three, many of which came from a step or two beyond the line, where a lot of Rockets players -- notably Ryan Anderson and Gordon -- like to hang out and defenses still, for whatever reason, don't push out far enough. Gordon only took two shots inside the arc in true Rockets fashion.
What a game, man. Back and forth all-night, shot for shot, stop for stop, 246 total points and it still felt like a tightly-contested affair. This one had everything. I wouldn't completely rule out a Boston-Houston matchup in the NBA Finals, but barring that, we're done seeing these two teams go heads up this season. Again, that's too bad. We should be on track to watch them in the semifinals if the playoffs were to be structured. Eventually this is going to happen.
Until then, we still appear to be in for one heck of a playoff run this season. Yes, Golden State is still the favorite to win it all, but outside of that, everything is up for grabs. The West is a complete 3-10 logjam of really good teams. The first few rounds of matchups are going to be incredible. Oklahoma City might well play Golden State or Houston in the first round. How about a potential Houston-Minnesota matchup with a healthy Jimmy Butler in the second round? Does anyone want any part of Denver or Anthony Davis' Pelicans in the early rounds?
Last year Golden State tore through the West unblemished, a perfect 12-0 en route to the Finals. That is not going to happen this time around. If they do see the Rockets in the conference finals, we're staring down a six-game basketball war at least, if not an outright seven-game thriller.
Meanwhile, any one of four teams -- Toronto, Boston, Cleveland or Washington -- could realistically win the East. Under optimal conditions with a few breaks, I wouldn't completely rule out the Sixers throwing a wrench in the whole thing. On Saturday, the Celtics certainly showed they're the legit contender they've looked like for most of the season.