The Saturday night national TV showcase this week did not disappoint, as the Houston Rockets escaped with a 111-110 overtime win over the Boston Celtics in one of the most thrilling games of the season.
Things started out a bit slow, as neither team really got into much of a rhythm early on. Boston, though, had more success and took advantage of some extremely poor shooting by the Rockets to build a double-digit lead in the first half. But coming out of the break, the Rockets picked things up on both sides of the ball, and not only started knocking down some outside shots, but stifled the Celtics on the other end.
By the final few minutes, the Rockets had taken control of the game, and would have won in regulation if it wasn't for a miraculous buzzer beater by Jaylen Brown to send things to an extra frame. In overtime, James Harden got to the line for two free throws in the closing seconds to put the Rockets in front, and they secured the win when Daniel Theis' potential game-winner clearly came after the clock hit 0.0.
Westbrook stays hot
The veteran point guard did not have a great start to his tenure in Houston, but has turned things around in a major way over the last few months. In particular, he's been tremendous since they went all-in on the small-ball experiment. He kept that up on Saturday with another killer performance, and in eight games in February is now averaging 27.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game on the year.
Westbrook was just about the only Rockets player who could get anything going in the first half, and his aggressive drives to the rim, often in transition, were key in keeping them in the game. He pushed the ball and created early offense before the Celtics could set their defense. Even though they still went into the break down 11, it could have been much worse if it wasn't for Westbrook.
And in the fourth quarter and overtime, he came to play, scoring 12 of his 41 points in those two frames. At the time, his ferocious putback slam late in the fourth seemed like it would be the exclamation point for the Rockets' comeback win, but ended up a bit overlooked due to Brown's heroics. In any case, it was still another tremendous effort from Westbrook, who continues to thrive with all of the space created by the Rockets' small-ball attack.
Tatum keeps 30-point streak going, but struggles to get there
The third-year swingman has been dynamite lately and is a leading contender for Eastern Conference player of the month. He's averaging over 30 points in the month and entered the game on a three-game 30-point scoring streak. While he extended that run to four games with 32 points, he needed 27 shots to get there and had one of his toughest nights in a while.
Houston was extremely physical with Tatum, and he seemed to struggle at times with their pressure. Robert Covington, in particular, had a few very strong defensive possessions where he completely shut down Tatum drives. At the same time, Tatum also missed a number of shots that he normally makes, both at the rim and from 3.
Maybe the most interesting aspect of this performance from Tatum is that even though he had a rough time on the offensive end, it reaffirmed his star status. Despite his inefficiency, he still managed to finish with 32 points, thanks in large part to a 10-of-14 night at the free throw line. That is what the league's best players do -- find a way to produce offense even when your shot isn't there.
Brown's miracle shot goes to waste
Almost every single time a team is in a situation where they're trying to miss free throws on purpose at the end of games, things end poorly for them. But on Saturday night, the Celtics managed to pull off a miracle.
Making their effort even more spectacular is that they were down by three points after Tatum missed the first free throw. When he tried to miss the second one, they needed a 3-pointer just to stay alive, whereas most of the time in these situations team just need a bucket.
Another interesting aspect of this play was Tatum's method for his intentional miss. He went for the front of the rim, but threw the ball up the second it got to his hands, which seemed to catch the Rockets off guard. From there, Marcus Smart -- who else -- was able to rip the ball loose and it found its way to Brown, who sunk the 3.
If the Celtics had gone on to win the game, it would have been an all-time moment for the team, but instead, it will go down as a mere footnote -- an incredible one, but a footnote nonetheless.