"Y'all are going to be great," Rivers said. "I'm telling you."
Maybe so. But the defending NBA champions showed the Rockets how far they still have to go.
Tracy McGrady scored 26 points, but couldn't rally the Rockets down the stretch.
The Celtics arrived in Houston thinking more about their 95-79 loss to Indiana on Saturday than the buzz they've heard about the Rockets.
"With Artest coming here, I know they see what we did the previous summer in having three guys who really can play and really can score," said Allen, who hit 11 of 15 shots. "You have a tendency to get caught in the hype of the wrong team and you start to believe it. What we did, we came out here, we lost the last game, and we needed to come out here and do the things we do that make us successful."
The Celtics led 101-97 when McGrady rose for a 3-pointer and was fouled by Tony Allen. McGrady landed awkwardly and grabbed his sore left knee as Rivers protested the call, claiming McGrady was trying to pass. He was given three foul shots and made two, cutting Boston's lead to 101-99.
"We did not play well at all," said Artest, who missed 13 of 16 shots and scored 15 points by sinking six free throws. "Usually you can say you've got to give them credit. But there were things that we could've done better to pull out the victory."
Paul Pierce added 13 points and nine rebounds for the Celtics. Yao went 4-for-14 from the field and scored eight points for Houston.
"Probably one of my worst games of all time," Yao said.
Houston's reserves helped keep the Rockets in the game. They trailed 81-78 after three quarters.
Yao, Artest and McGrady went a combined 0-for-8 to start the fourth quarter and the Celtics led 93-86 with 3½ minutes left. McGrady converted a three-point play, but Ray Allen hit a 3-pointer at the other end. McGrady then hit a shorter shot and Ray Allen answered again.
Luis Scola scored twice to cut Boston's lead to 98-95. Out of a timeout, Garnett swished a shot from the wing with 59.6 seconds left and McGrady missed a long jumper on Houston's next trip down.
The Celtics ended the Rockets' 22-game winning streak last season with a 94-74 win at the Toyota Center on March 18. Yao missed that game with a stress fracture in his left foot.
Houston feels more equipped to win games like this with defensive specialist Artest. He guarded Pierce from the opening tip and stole the ball on Boston's second possession. Yao, guarded by 6-foot-10 Kendrick Perkins, had a dunk and two hook shots in the first five minutes as Houston took the early lead.
But Yao went to the bench with his second foul with 6:35 left in the quarter and the Celtics went on a 15-4 run, hitting seven of nine shots. Pierce scored only four points in the first quarter, but Rajon Rondo had 10 and Boston led 28-22.
Yao returned with 10:52 left in the first half. With Yao backing off, Glen Davis grabbed an offensive rebound and scored, part of a 15-5 Celtics run. Davis converted a three-point play, drawing Yao's third foul, to put Boston up 43-27 with 7:56 remaining in the half.
Yao went out again and the smaller Rockets' lineup mounted a 25-4 run, sinking nine straight shots, including three 3-pointers. The Celtics hit only one field goal and committed three turnovers in the five-minute stretch, and Aaron Brooks' jumper put Houston ahead 52-47.
Houston's bench contributed 25 points.
"We were in pretty good shape with Yao hardly playing in the first half," said Rockets coach Rick Adelman.
Ray Allen stopped Houston's run with a three-point play and swished a 3-pointer on the next possession to put the Celtics back in front. Pierce hit a 3-pointer in the final minute and Boston led 58-53 at the break.
The Celtics hit 11 of 16 shots in the third quarter to keep their lead heading into the fourth.
- The Celtics outrebounded Houston 46-41.
- Perkins scored 15 points.
- Brooks scored 12 for the Rockets, but starting point guard Rafer Alston had an off night, going 1-for-6 from the field and scoring four points.
- Houston guard Steve Francis, out with a knee injury, arrived at the arena wearing a red velvet sport jacket with "Barack Obama" spelled on the back in sequins. Francis said he would try to attend Obama's presidential inauguration. "Today is a transitional day in my career and everybody else's career," he said before the game.