The Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics squared off in a marquee matchup on Saturday night in a thrilling overtime contest that ultimately resulted in the Rockets earning their sixth straight win by a score of 111-110.
Both teams still find themselves jockeying for playoff position in the final two months of the regular season. The Rockets are now just one game behind the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers for the No .2 seed in the Western Conference, while the Celtics are one game back of the Toronto Raptors in the East.
Naturally, this competitive game served as a showcase for how these two teams might look come playoff time. Here are three takeaways.
3. Jayson Tatum comes back to Earth
Anybody watching the Celtics in recent weeks has seen the same thing: Jayson Tatum is blossoming into a superstar.
Tatum had a dominant month of February, averaging 30.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 12 games while posting a .637 true shooting percentage, by far his highest split of the season. Tatum was particularly excellent in the three games prior to Saturday night, including a 41-point game in a narrow loss to the Lakers and a 33-point, 11-rebound performance in a road win over the Utah Jazz.
But the former Duke star had a rough game against the Rockets. Tatum shot just 9-of-27 from the field, and he missed multiple opportunities at the rim in the fourth quarter.
It was never likely Tatum would sustain his ridiculous level of play. He has been a fairly streaky offensive player since entering the league, and Saturday served as a reminder he is still prone to a bad game (so is James Harden, who had an even worse shooting night).
But despite the inefficiency, Tatum still offered a positive takeaway: he managed 14 free-throw attempts. He has been showing more assertiveness in getting to the rim and finishing through contact, which is a good sign for a Celtics team without a consistent interior scorer.
2. Russell Westbrook thriving in Rockets’ “smallball” system
Westbrook was the best player on the floor on Saturday. He scored 41 points on 16-of-27 shooting, adding eight rebounds, five assists and three steals for good measure.
Like Tatum, Westbrook was especially dominant this past month. That is no coincidence.
The Rockets’ decision to trade center Clint Capela and play smaller has naturally benefitted Westbrook, who has feasted now that the paint has opened up.
Westbrook is a traditionally streaky shooter. Since the Robert Covington’s first game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 6, however, he has been super efficient.
In fact, Westbrook has never shot below 50 percent from the field since the first game of the month, and he has scored at least 33 points in six of his last seven games. His acceleration and athleticism make him a nightmare. He takes opposing guards off the dribble and soars to the lane for alley-oops and tip-dunks, and there is absolutely nobody stopping him because the Rockets go “five-out” and spread the floor.
The “small ball” version of Westbrook has terrorized opponents. Oh, and the Rockets keep winning.
1. When will Kemba Walker return?
As good as Tatum is, this Celtics team feels incomplete without Walker. This purported knee soreness has turned into a full-blown injury, which is concerning for the Celtics.
Kemba is so valuable to Boston because he can create off the dribble, but is also excellent at working off screens.
Marcus Smart is just not the same kind of orchestrator as Walker, and Tatum is the only other guy who can consistently create offense for himself. Opposing defenses were comfortable sending multiple defenders his way and making someone else beat them, and oftentimes that proved to be a successful strategy.
The Celtics need Walker back in the rotation as soon as possible if they hope to grab the second seed and seriously contend to come out of the East.