Rockets' inability to keep up with Celtics physicality led to second-half meltdown

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BOSTON -- James Harden’s place among NBA’s elite players is well cemented. He is a man with few peers when it comes to scoring the ball, something that has consistently had him on the league’s short list of MVP contenders. 

But as talented as he has been scoring the ball, Harden still has moments when his inability to manage the game hurt not only his play but that of his team.

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The 34-point, 10-assist night he had against the Boston Celtics was an afterthought to the Rockets’ collapse against the Celtics, a game Boston won 99-98 after having trailed by 26 points in the second half. 

And while there was plenty of blame pie to go around after the loss, Harden’s back-to-back offensive fouls in the final 7.3 seconds -- both drawn by Marcus Smart -- were absolute back-breakers for the Rockets. 

“A lot of grabbing, a lot of holding,” said Harden who had a game-high eight turnovers. “How else am I supposed to get open? A guy has two arms wrapped around my whole body.”

While Harden may have had a point with the first offensive foul call against him in the final 7.3 seconds -- there was a point on the play when it appeared Smart did hold him briefly -- the second offensive foul against him moments later was one of the easier calls for the officials to make with him clearly extending his off-arm knocking Smart backwards. 

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said he didn’t believe that either offensive foul should have been called. 

But the bigger issue was the fact that his team had such a huge lead and didn’t do the things in the second half that helped them build it.

“We just didn’t move, we didn’t push, we didn’t seem like we had the necessary stuff to take it to them and we just kind of fell into them,” D’Antoni said. “They were up on us and they were an aggressive defense and we weren’t moving, and it turned the game around.”

Of course, the late-game calls and non-calls will draw additional criticism from some circles due to the fact that the game was officiated by just two referees -- Tony Brothers and Gediminas Petraitis. 

The third referee, Mark Lindsay, suffered a back injury during pre-game warm-ups and was unable to participate in the nationally televised game. 

“First of all, how do you only have two officials on a national TV game,” Harden said afterwards before later adding, “Like I said in the first statement it’s tough; you can’t have two officials in a professional game. There was a lot of no-calls that needed to be called because it changed the dynamic of the game. You got fast break points, no calls, turnovers or whatever the case may be. This is a professional game on national TV. It can’t happen.”

While Harden’s comments may have some merit to them, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the Rockets led by as many as 26 points in the second half only to squander that lead in part because of Boston’s increased physical play that on many levels, was similar to what Houston did in the first half to build up a lead that stood at 62-38 at the half. 

“It was the tale of two halves and we were kind of like them in the first half and they were like us in the second,” D’Antoni said. “Tough loss, but we will bounce back and see what happens next game.”

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