Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming dominated every pregame conversation. Raef LaFrentz dominated the game from 3-point range. And the hottest hand became the hottest postgame topic last night.
Each time LaFrentz exited the contest, he received a rousing round of applause from the crowd of 16,238 at the TD Banknorth Garden, including a standing ovation just before the first half ended. Going 7 for 7 from the arc in the first half, LaFrentz helped the Celtics jump ahead early and ensured they never trailed. Neither McGrady nor Yao was a factor. Fans who wanted to see a special performance from either Houston's prolific wingman or its 7-foot-6-inch center gladly enjoyed a show from LaFrentz.
For the first time this season, Boston enjoyed an easy win. The Celtics' hustle never waned in the second half, Boston leaving nothing to chance in its 102-82 victory over the Rockets. LaFrentz tied a career high with 32 points (27 in the first half) and set a career high with his seven 3-pointers. He also became the first player besides Paul Pierce to lead the Celtics in scoring this season and earned the game ball for his effort, which also included 8 rebounds, 2 blocked shots, and a dive along the baseline in the second quarter that saved the ball from bouncing out of bounds.
"It feels kind of numb when you're hitting a big volume of threes," said LaFrentz (12 for 19). "Every shot kind of feels the same. That's what you want. If you shoot the ball, you want every shot to feel the same, every situation to feel the same."
LaFrentz did not wait long to start his barrage from the perimeter, hitting his first 3-pointer a little more than three minutes into the game. He followed with a layup that capped a 9-0 opening run by Boston. The Celtics quickly built a double-digit lead in the first quarter and never trailed. Boston led by 11 points (55-44) at halftime with LaFrentz and Mark Blount (17 points) the biggest beneficiaries of the home team's strategy to involve the Houston big men in a lot of defensive rotations, making Yao and Juwan Howard run around and fight through pick and rolls. The Celtics' lead stretched to a game-high 23 points midway through the fourth quarter with the Rockets obviously tiring.
Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy said the Rockets needed drive to fight through mental and physical fatigue and win the second of back-to-back road games. Any drive the Rockets brought with them from a Saturday night win in New Jersey evaporated in the face of the Celtics' quick start. It also seemed like McGrady, who returned to the lineup after a back strain and scored 20 of 35 points in the fourth quarter against the Nets, was a bit spent. Against a Celtic defensive effort led by Pierce, McGrady was held to 14 points (5 for 10). His bigger big-name teammate fared no better. Appearing frustrated at times, Yao finished with, for him, a pedestrian 14 points and 10 rebounds.
The Celtics succeeded in large part because they made use of their obvious speed advantage with young, fresh, quick legs. The fact that Houston was playing its second game in two nights only increased the discrepancy in team speed. The fact that the Celtics outscored the Rockets, 9-3, on the fast break didn't even begin to cover it.
Boston complemented its speed with what coach Doc Rivers considered its best ball movement all year. The Green recorded 25 assists on 39 field goals. All seven of LaFrentz's 3-pointers came off assists, including four from Pierce, who had 19 points and 10 assists. Every starter logged at least one assist.
"When you go back to last year, one of the things we've always said is, if Raef gets a lot of attempts, that means the ball is moving extremely well," said Rivers. "Obviously, he was making them. But the fact that they kept finding him, I thought, was really good."
In the afterglow of last night's victory, it might be hard to remember where LaFrentz was last year at this point in the season. He was coming back from major right knee surgery. No one asked about his shooting, just how his knee felt. If not for a trade to the Celtics Oct. 20, 2003, LaFrentz may never have returned to the heights he reached before his knee problems.
"Any time you go through an injury, that takes some confidence away from you that you have in your body and yourself," said LaFrentz. "But during that time in my career, I just feel fortunate that I was able to come here because they [the Celtics] afforded me the opportunity to get healthy, to concentrate on my body, and to be able to come back and be productive. As long as I'm healthy, I know I can shoot the ball. If you don't have your legs, you can't shoot the ball."
In the closing minutes, LaFrentz provided one final dramatic moment. He stood on the cusp of setting a career high for points when he stepped to the line with 3 minutes 29 seconds remaining. The rest of the starters were on the bench cheering and hoping LaFrentz could set the mark. But he couldn't complete the 3-point play. He got one more shot but airballed a 15-foot baseline jumper. LaFrentz called the attempt "pretty sloppy."
But for LaFrentz and the Celtics, the rest of the game was anything but.