It was always going to be a defensive struggle between the Thunder and the Boston Celtics. It just so happened that both teams only played their best defense for one half apiece.
The numbers turned out as expected as the defensive battle raged between the league’s two best in terms of defensive efficiency coming into the game, but the 48 minutes itself was wild. The Thunder ripped off 31 first quarter points, then never scored more than 24 in a period the rest of the way. Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club held Boston to a season-low 37 first half points then gave up 64 in the second half, as the Thunder fell 101-94.
“We played an incredible first half. The ball movement, the player movement, the execution on offense and defense was really done at a high level,” Donovan noted. “In the second half we didn’t really sustain any of that.”
In the first half, the Thunder’s defense was dominant, limiting Boston to just 30 percent shooting from the field and a miserable 5-for-20 in the paint. The sequence to end the half exemplified the Thunder at the height of its athleticism, length and execution. Two forced turnovers plus two straight blocks on the final five Celtics possessions defined the first half, including the spike into the second row by Andre Roberson as the buzzer sounded sent the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd into a frenzy.
On offense over the first 24 minutes, the Thunder was electric, feeding off its defense. The ball pinged around the perimeter, most notably on a Paul George drive and dish to Raymond Felton, who volleyed it to Patrick Patterson in the corner for three. Russell Westbrook pushed the tempo, helped generate 13 fast break points and barked at the top of his lungs to the Thunder faithful after he drained a three. When Westbrook hit Patterson for a trailing three-pointer in the secondary break and Steven Adams shimmied with the new power forward, this one looked over.
“We were just being the aggressors,” Westbrook said.
The script was flipped on its head once the players got back on the floor for the second half. The Thunder’s mojo and swagger had worn off, and the Celtics threw the first punch of the third quarter, ripping off an 18-6 run. Kyrie Irving suddenly had space to operate, and the Celtics got into the teeth of the Thunder’s defense and made plays. Eventually, Boston’s offensive rhythm caught up to the Thunder, and Irving and Al Horford knocked down crucial shots in the final five minutes to keep the Thunder at bay.
“One of the toughest things in this league is going up big, especially against a talented group,” George explained. “That’s just the NBA.”
“We took the foot off the gas a little bit,” forward Carmelo Anthony said. “We didn’t put a full game together tonight.”
Tonight was perhaps the most perfect example of how interconnected both sides of the ball are in the NBA. When you force tough shots and get stops, you’re primed and ready to burst out into the open floor for easy buckets. Similarly, forcing the opposition to pull the ball out of the bucket repeatedly allows a team to set up their defense and load up for specific plays and sets.
“When you take those sort of (bad) shots, they’re ready to fang out really fast,” Adams described. “It’s more like our pace needs to be higher than theirs to keep them moving and keep them out of transition.”
The Thunder built an 18-point lead behind a 15-2 first quarter run and another 8-0 jolt in the second, plus 12 assists on 20 made field goals and a plus-3 rebounding edge in the opening half. The Thunder’s scoring advantage evaporated all the way down to 1 in the third quarter, and when Kyrie Irving completed an improbable five-point possession in the fourth quarter, the Thunder’s momentum was gone for good.
“We just have to have more stamina. It’s not physical stamina, it’s mental, making those reads more efficiently,” Adams explained. “Awareness, rotations, we have to be better with it.”
Horford drained two threes and a pump-fake jumper in the final 3:03 and Irving got a switch he wanted and drove in for a layup to eliminate any chance of a Thunder miracle.
Up next for the Thunder is another three-game road trip, starting in Portland then on to Sacramento and Denver.
“One day at a time,” Westbrook said.
Watch: Thunder Highlights
By the Numbers
3 – After forcing 8 first half turnovers, the Thunder defense only forced three in the second half
14 – Rebounds for Carmelo Anthony, including three on the offensive end. He also tallied 10 points and three assists
41.5 – Combined shooting percentage for the two teams tonight, an expected result of the Thunder and Celtics defenses clashing
The Last Word
“It was a tale of two halves. What we’re trying to strive for is consistency and stamina on both ends of the floor.” – Head Coach Billy Donovan