Celtics Blow Big Lead

February 24, 2002

HOUSTON - The aura from Los Angeles and the big win over the Lakers is officially kaput. A Texas two-step in the space of 48 hours took care of that for the Celtics.

   The Headbands-over-America Tour came to a crushing conclusion here last night for the boys in green. They squandered a 20-point first-quarter lead and fell apart in the second half, dropping a painful 99-89 decision to the 20-35 Houston Rockets. The defeat came two days after a similar second-half el foldo in Dallas, and sent the Celtics back to Boston with a 3-4 record on the trip. They were not happy about it.

"Very disappointing," said a very disappointed Jim O'Brien. "We had a chance to win in Dallas and we had a chance to win here and we didn't get it done."

No, they didn't. Cuttino Mobley almost single-handedly brought the Rockets back with a 40-point night. Steve Francis shook off his migraine woes and had 11 points (3 of 15) along with 9 rebounds, 8 assists, and 7 turnovers. Houston crushed the Celtics on the boards, 45-28, including 17-3 on the offensive glass. By the time the game ended, the 29-9 lead in the first nine minutes was as forgotten as the 109-108 win in Los Angeles Tuesday.

"No question, it's a disappointment," said Eric Williams. "We wanted to win this trip and we came out a couple of games short. But you can't live in the past."

Good thing for the Celtics, because the immediate past is not a pretty thing. The euphoria from their fast start had pretty much subsided by halftime. By then, Mobley had awakened and the Boston lead was a mere 51-47 at the break. Despite 16 turnovers, Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich was a happy man as he headed to the locker room, punching the air with his fist in mock triumph. Mobley, meanwhile, was in payback mode.

"It upset me," said Mobley, who was 13 of 26 from the field and 10 of 10 from the line. "When they were up 20 and they were talking a lot, we stepped up our defense and we . . ." and "we kicked them in the [butt]," added Francis, sitting next to Mobley.

That they did. The Celtics shot a scalding 68 percent in the first quarter, but 41 percent the rest of the way. After scoring 34 points in the first quarter, they managed 30 in the next two, during which the Rockets not only came back, but grabbed the lead for good. Boston also added to its woes with 19 turnovers (good for 22 Houston points).

"The turnovers and rebounding killed us," O'Brien said. "It was bad basketball."

At the start, it was good. Tony Delk took over for Kedrick Brown in the starting lineup and the Celtics offense clicked on every cylinder. They were 6 of 6 in treys. They could do little wrong and Houston could do little right, turning it over nine times. It was pretty sloppy.

But the general rule in the NBA is that 20-point first-quarter leads tend to disappear. This one disappeared in the second quarter when the Celtics missed two shots and turned it over seven times in the first 3:40. Houston got back into it with 10 unanswered points. The 18-point lead after one was now down to 8.

Houston scored 10 unanswered points with people like Dan Langhi, whose last basket had been on Feb. 6 (he had been 0 for 10 since then) and Jason Collier. Rudy T had to resort to the scrubs because he was missing both Eddie Griffin (flu) and Kevin Willis (back). After Boston built the lead back to 14, Mobley got warm and scored 13 points over the final 5:04, which knocked the deficit to the aforementioned 4 points at halftime.

Houston took control in the third. A Terrence Morris tip-in of a Mobley miss produced the first tie (58-58) since 2-2. At 60-60, Francis gave Houston the lead for good with two free throws. That launched a quarter-closing 11-4 run, which featured 7 points from the rubbery Terrence Morris and two from Kenny Thomas. Houston also took a page from the Dallas playbook and started playing tough defense, which took the Celtics out of their preferred rhythm.

In the fourth, the Celtics got two quick hoops from Paul Pierce (30 points) and Antoine Walker (25) to pull to within 71-68. But the Rockets then ran off 8 straight points (4 by Mobley) as the Celtics missed five straight shots and turned it over once more.

The run gave the Rockets an 11-point lead with 8:11 to play and the Celtics got no closer than 7 the rest of the way. It was not the way they wanted to end this thing. But, in the end, they got exactly what they deserved.

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