By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The Celtics are still looking for a defining win as we hit the quarter mark of the season. It looked as though they may come away with it Monday night in Houston, but instead, they added to their list of disappointing losses.
A frustrating evening was capped off by a frustrating finish, as Al Horford missed a potential game-winning layup at the buzzer and the C's walked off the court, stunned, with a 107-106 loss. The Celtics owned an eight-point lead at the 6:56 mark thanks to a Horford dunk. But three Boston turnovers over the next three minutes allowed Houston to cut into the lead and ultimately tie things up at 100 apiece with 3:44 left rather than Boston adding to their advantage.
A disjointed final stretch followed. Horford missed a jumper. Isaiah Thomas was blocked on a layup bid. Horford missed again a few feet from the basket.
Despite all that, the Celtics found themselves with a chance to win in the closing seconds after Marcus Smart hit a pair of key free throws after drawing a Flagrant 1 on James Harden and his elbow. With the ball back and seven seconds on the clock, Isaiah Thomas missed a layup he usually hits with ease. The Celtics came down with the offensive rebound though, and another chance to win it.
But Thomas, who finished with 20 points on the evening, ended up on the floor when Boston tried to inbound the ball. So Horford took the feed at the three-point line, drove to the hoop after freeing himself from his defender and found a clear path to the basket. It was a little too clear, however.
Horford rushed his shot, taking off a split second too early, and his layup bid missed. Instead of beating a red-hot Rockets team for that defining win of the season, the Celtics walked off with another frustrating defeat.
Their new $30-million man shouldered the blame.
"We had our opportunities," said Horford, who had a solid game overall with a team-high 21 points and nine assists to go with six rebounds and a pair of blocks. "I felt like we had our opportunities and I didn't execute as well as I wanted to toward the end tonight, so I take the fall for that.
"I felt good when I shot it," he said of that final look. "It just didn't go down."
The frustrating end was the product of another frustrating beginning, as the C's were outscored 26-17 in the game's opening frame and found themselves in a 10-point hole at halftime. They came out of the locker room with some edge and intensity, dropping 35 points to take an 83-77 lead into the fourth quarter. That included a 19-2 run over a four-minute span. Horford himself had seven points and four assists in the quarter.
"I thought we did a lot of good things for sure," said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "It's a tough loss and a tough pill to swallow, but I think that there was more positive than not against a team that's hot and playing really well."
After an overall solid evening, it's hard to crush Horford for the miss. He makes the Celtics a better team whenever he's on the floor, stuffing the stat sheet in whatever way they need. But it was a shot he needs to make, the kind of shot he was brought in to make (or at least orchestrate). Instead, it was a miss that he says will keep him pushing as the C's try to break out of this early-season malaise.
"The good thing about the NBA is that Wednesday we have an opportunity to go into Orlando and compete against a good team over there," said Horford. "So this is tough, but I'm sure we will be better from this."
At 12-9 on the season, the Celtics are still right in the mix for that second seed in a crowded Eastern Conference. But Monday night was another missed opportunity in which the Celtics could have created some early-season separation from the pack, the latest miss in a season that has been defined by mediocre play and mistakes when it matters most.
It's clear they're a still a team working to figure things out, but they're a team that could, and should, be better with six weeks already in the books.
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