Russell Westbrook scored 41 points on 16-of-27 shooting as the Houston Rockets defeated the Boston Celtics 111-110 in overtime at TD Garden on Saturday.
The Rockets never trailed in the fourth quarter but found themselves playing an extra five minutes after Jaylen Brown nailed a buzzer-beating three to knot the game at 104:
A low-scoring overtime ensued, with neither team ever leading by more than two points. Westbrook notably had an and-1 layup to give his team a one-point edge:
The difference turned out to be two James Harden free throws with 24.3 seconds remaining.
Brown had the chance to be the hero again but missed a 15-footer in the closing seconds.
Robert Covington added a 16-point, 16-rebound double-double for the Rockets. Harden, the NBA's leading scorer, had an off night with 21 points on 7-of-24 shooting.
Jayson Tatum led the C's with 32 points and 13 boards. He also added five dimes, two blocks and two steals.
Marcus Smart stuffed the stat sheet with 26 points, seven assists, five rebounds and four steals.
Boston led 56-45 at halftime, but Houston responded by outscoring the C's 36-22 in the third to take a three-point lead into the fourth.
The C's kept it close throughout the final 12 minutes and cut the deficit to 102-101 after a Smart three-pointer with 10.6 seconds remaining.
Westbrook responded with two free throws. Rockets center P.J. Tucker fouled Tatum, who missed the first before intentionally bricking the second, leading to the Brown three.
The 39-20 Rockets have won six straight. The 41-18 Celtics had won four of their last five heading into Saturday.
The C's were without All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, who is out with a sore left knee.
Rockets G Russell Westbrook: 41 PTS, 8 REB, 5 AST, 3 STL
Rockets G James Harden: 21 PTS, 8 AST, 3 STL
Rockets F Robert Covington: 16 PTS, 16 REB, 3 BLK
Celtics F Jayson Tatum: 32 PTS, 13 REB, 5 AST, 2 BLK, 2 STL
Celtics G Marcus Smart: 26 PTS, 7 AST, 5 REB, 4 STL
Celtics F Gordon Hayward: 18 PTS, 6 REB, 4 AST
Rockets and Celtics State Cases as Dark-Horse NBA Title Contenders
The Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers sit far above the rest of the league on the Caesars Palace NBA championship odds ledger.
The chalk pick for this year's champion is the winner of a hypothetical NBA Finals series between Milwaukee and whomever emerges from a battle for L.A. in the Western Conference Finals.
But a few teams below those squads in the conference standings are making their arguments to be considered title contenders as the regular season enters its second-to-last month. Two of them played each other Saturday.
The Rockets won their sixth in a row and 10th game in 12 since a midseason philosophy change saw the team employ a small-ball strategy in which the 6'5" Tucker is Houston's starting center.
It remains to be seen if Tucker becomes the face of a new era in which every team copies small-ball ways, but the Rockets are sure making a case for it as they dominate the league and crawl up the West table.
A lack of height down low wasn't a problem Saturday as the C's only out-rebounded the Rockets by one, 54-53. Boston also scored just two more points in the paint, 48-46.
Thanks to the new small-ball plan, Westbrook is thriving in Houston, averaging 32.3 points on 54.2 percent shooting, 7.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists in February before Saturday. Westbrook never shot better than 45.7 percent from the field in any full season before this year, but he's at 47 percent.
Other Rockets are finding great success, perhaps none more than new acquisition Covington. The dynamic three-and-D player has excelled on both ends and become the team's top rebounder. He's arguably the key to this new era's success given his well-rounded game.
Players like Covington can help the Rockets overcome rough shooting nights from one of their backcourt stars, which was the case Friday when Harden shot just 7-of-24.
But the rest of the Rockets did enough for the win led by Tucker, who crashed the glass for 13 boards and even added three blocks.
Meanwhile, the Celtics suffered a tough-luck loss after they fought hard in the fourth just to send the game into overtime, but the team can take away some significant positives.
First, Tatum is an unquestioned superstar, which was the case before Saturday but was further confirmed against Houston.
He shot just 9-of-27 but got to the line 14 times and contributed everywhere else en route to a phenomenal night.
Tatum averaged 30.5 points per game in February and 34.0 since the All-Star break. He's capable of going up against the best the league has to offer and crushing them on any given night, like when he dropped 41 points on 12-of-20 shooting versus the Los Angeles Lakers last Sunday.
Otherwise, the C's were largely impressive, considering that they played without their All-Star floor general, Walker, who averages 21.8 points per game.
Walker could have been the difference between a loss and a win Saturday, but the Celtics were just one bucket away from beating a scorching-hot Rockets team without one of their top-two players.
That's because the Celtics starting lineup is loaded.
Smart can do it all on both ends, and his penchant for random hot-shooting nights from beyond the three-point arc appeared once again Saturday when he hit five from deep.
Granted, Smart took 15 shots from three-point land, but he also nailed an improbable three down the stretch in regulation to keep the game close enough before Brown's dagger sent the game to OT.
The Celtics have two wings in Gordon Hayward and Brown easily capable of scoring 20 per night, and Daniel Theis does the dirty work down low in addition to stretching the floor for the occasional three.
It will be tough for the Rockets and C's to overcome their respective conference's favorites for an NBA Finals berth, but Houston's small ball success and a star-studded Boston lineup led by Tatum could send both teams deep into the playoffs, to the point where a Rockets-C's Finals isn't far-fetched.
The Rockets will visit the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Monday at 7 p.m. ET. The C's will host the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.