LOS ANGELES (AFP) - The Boston Celtics fashioned the biggest comeback of the National Basketball Association (NBA) season as they rallied from 26 points down to stun the Houston Rockets 99-98 on Thursday (Dec 28).
"I've had a few comebacks, but this is a special one," Boston's Kyrie Irving said after a basket by Al Horford with 3.7 seconds left gave the Celtics the win.
"From just how we started, it was just so ugly," Irving said. "They came out firing. We just had to battle back. It took a lot. It took everybody."
Eastern Conference leaders Boston trailed by 24 points at half-time and by 26 early in the third quarter.
But the Celtics outscored Houston 31-16 in the third, when Boston's dominant defensive effort saw the Rockets make just four of 17 shots from the field while coughing up seven turnovers.
"We just didn't stop believing," said Boston's Terry Rozier, who said Irving called the players together for "a special talk" at half-time.
The Celtics had cut the deficit to 98-97 on a dunk from Jayson Tatum with 7.3 seconds remaining.
Rockets star James Harden was then called for an offensive foul as Boston's Marcus Smart was knocked down as Houston tried to inbound the ball.
That opened the door for Horford's game winner, and Harden was then whistled for another offensive foul that sealed the Rockets' fate.
The Celtics topped the previous biggest comeback of the season - the Golden State Warriors rally from 24 down to beat the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov 18.
Irving led the Celtics with 26 points. Tatum scored 19 while Rozier and Smart scored 13 apiece. Horford finished with nine points, and also pulled down eight rebounds.
"First of all, (the Rockets) were unbelievable in the first half," Boston coach Brad Stevens said. "The result doesn't really matter. It's the resilience that (the Celtics) showed, which they could have easily folded."
The Portland Trail Blazers also had to battle back to beat the Philadelphia 76ers 114-110.
C.J. McCollum scored 34 points, Shabazz Napier added a season-high 23 and Jusuf Nurkic chipped in 21 points with 12 rebounds for the Trail Blazers, who erased an 18-point third-quarter deficit.
Joel Embiid scored 29 points and pulled down nine rebounds for the 76ers, who lost for the 10th time in 12 games.
For Portland, it was a first home win in seven games, and the victory came despite the absence of two-time All-Star point guard Damian Lillard, who missed his third straight game with a right hamstring injury.
The Milwaukee Bucks engineered another big comeback, overcoming a 20-point second-half deficit to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 102-96.
Eric Bledsoe drained a three-pointer with 2min 25sec left to play to give the Bucks their first lead of the night.
Bledsoe scored 26 points and Giannis Antetokounpo added 22 with 10 rebounds for Milwaukee.
The Bucks got off to a ragged start, turning the ball over four times in the first four minutes to fall into a quick 17-6 hole.
They trailed by 10 at half-time, and by the time they were down 74-54 with 7min 13sec left in the third quarter, their home fans were booing them.
"I'd have booed us, too," admitted Milwaukee forward John Henson.
But Henson and Bledsoe scored 10 points each in the third as the Bucks plugged away, finally bringing Minnesota's five-game winning streak to an end.
Karl-Anthony Towns led the Timberwolves with 22 points. Andrew Wiggins added 21 and Jimmy Butler chipped in 20.
But Wiggins was held scoreless in the fourth when Butler and Towns combined for just 10 points.
A three-pointer by Towns with 4min 19sec remaining put the Timberwolves up by three, but the Bucks scored the last 12 points of the game.