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Fast Break: Al Horford misses last-second layup as Celtics let one slip away to Rockets

12.05.16 at 10:46 pm ET

Avery Bradley defends James Harden during Monday's game. (Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports)

Avery Bradley defends James Harden during Monday’s game. (Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports)

The Celtics were handed a gift Monday night in Houston, but they treated it like an ugly sweater on Christmas morning — something they’ll look back on only with disgust.

Houston led by three points and had the ball with 16 seconds left, but in an instant the C’s were put in position to win after Rockets star James Harden was called for an offensive foul — and a flagrant 1 to boot — after throwing his elbow into Marcus Smart’s face while trying to create space. However, Boston could not capitalize.

After Smart (a 60 percent shooter from the line) hit two free throws to get the C’s within a point, Isaiah Thomas missed a driving layup, although the C’s retained possession when Harden knocked it out of bounds. On the ensuing inbounds, Al Horford caught the ball at the 3-point line and found an open lane to the basket but missed a layup with one second remaining, allowing Houston to escape with a 107-106 decision.

“I felt good when I shot it,” Horford told reporters about the final shot. “It just didn’t go down.”

“We got two good looks,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said in his postgame press conference. “The guys did a great job in those moments.”

Harden led all scorers with 37 points on 8-of-14 field goals (3-of-5 treys) and 18-of-18 free throws. He also had eight rebounds, eight assists and 10 turnovers.

Horford led the Celtics with 21 points and nine assists. Thomas scored 20 points. Bradley had 16 points and 10 rebounds — and he’ll rue the additional point he thought he had. With 46 seconds left and the C’s trailing by five, Bradley lined up at the arc and drilled a big shot to end a 13-2 Houston run, but the officials ruled his toe was on the line, and it held up on review despite protestations from the Celtics, who saw the replay on the arena scoreboard.

“They said it was inconclusive and it was called a 2,” Stevens related.

The Celtics owned the third quarter, turning a 12-point deficit into a six-point advantage heading into the final period.

“We guarded at a different level,” Stevens said. “And then our first unit played pretty good in the third. That one stretch in the fourth when we had a couple of turnovers and they scored off of those was hurtful, but we played a really good second half. And I thought our second unit played a really good first half.”

The Rockets had a 58-48 lead at the half — and extended the lead to 11 on a technical foul free throw before the second half began (Thomas the culprit for barking at the officials before heading to the locker room). The margin was 12 before the C’s embarked on a  game-changing 19-2 run.

“I thought we did a lot of good things, for sure,” Stevens said. “That’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 really hot and playing really well.”

Smart (13 points) and Jae Crowder (12) gave the C’s five players in double figures.

Jonas Jerebko started for the C’s and played well in 21 minutes. Usual starter Amir Johnson was limited to four minutes, likely due more to the matchups than anything else.

The Celtics next visit the Magic on Wednesday night.

Stud of the night: James Harden

The 6-foot-5 lefty, bidding to become the first player since Tiny Archibald in 1972-73 to lead the league in points and assists, helped his cause by netting 37, including a 3-pointer with 54 seconds left that ultimately provided the winning points, and dishing out eight assists. He came into the game fourth in the league at 28.7 points per game and first at 11.6 assists.

“Harden’s a really good player,” Stevens said. “I don’t know what else to say. We could go through and dissect every one of [his baskets], but I think the bottom line is he’s a really good player.”

This marked Harden’s ninth 30-point game of the season.

Dud of the night: The Celtics’ shooting in the closing seconds

Horford played too well to call him a dud, but the look on his face when the buzzer sounded told the story. He was incredulous after watching his potential game-winning layup bounce off the rim and into Harden’s hands. Similarly, Thomas missed a layup — for the record, a tough one in traffic, but one he’s hit many times before — that could have given the visitors the lead with five seconds left.

When the game was lost: On Horford’s missed layup

It appeared that the C’s were looking to get the ball to Thomas, but he ended up on the floor, so Horford caught the inbounds pass at the 3-point line on the top right side of the floor. He shook loose from his defender and ended up with a clear path to the basket. He appeared to take off a little early — perhaps concerned about the time and an approaching help defender — and the layup was off the mark.

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