BOSTON – The game was seemingly under wraps. A 6-point lead with 24.7 seconds left built by some solid execution and great shot making put the Thunder in control over the Boston Celtics. Then suddenly, shockingly, that lead unraveled. Boston got an easy layup, a tough off-the-dribble three-pointer and then after just one Thunder free throw in four attempts, Boston had the ball with 7.7 seconds to go down just two.
Celtics rookie Jason Tatum drove middle and picked out forward Marcus Morris on the wing for a pass. Thunder forward Paul George leapt in the air to contest a shot, forcing Morris to put the ball on the floor. Center Steven Adams saw this develop, and began to come out to help George on the ball. For a millisecond, however, he hesitated. Worried about leaving Celtics center Al Horford open, Adams got a late hand up on Morris’ fadeaway one-dribble three-pointer. It was too short, as was Russell Westbrook’s three-pointer at the buzzer, and the Thunder fell 100-99.
“Hindsight’s an amazing thing,” Adams said.
“It was a tough shot. Pump fake, fading to his right,” George noted, more generous to his Thunder teammate’s attempt to contest. “We’ll live with that.”
The last shot aside, the Thunder had an opportunity to ensure that any last second heave had no chance of making a difference in the final score. Starting at the 1:23 mark, the Thunder had 10 free throw attempts – four from Adams, four from Westbrook and two for Carmelo Anthony. Adams and Westbrook each hit 3-of-4, leaving points on the floor. Anthony, one of the league’s best shot-makers historically, stepped to the line and missed both free throws with 8.4 seconds to go.
“We had the game won. Up two, on the road, (eight) seconds left, having a chance to kind of seal the game,” Anthony said. “We put the fate back into their hands to make a hell of a shot like that.”
Every point mattered in this game, not just because of what the final score looked like, but because of the nature of the 48 minutes. Points were hard to come by for both teams because of a focused and energetic defensive effort that held one another to just 41 percent shooting apiece and just 23-for-63 (36.5 percent) combined from the three-point line.
Yet throughout the game both the Thunder and Celtics managed to make runs to take control. It resulted in 12 lead changes and 10 ties, with the game played in just a 15-point window.
“It was just one of those things where you find little pockets, if you will,” Adams explained. “They’re a really good defensive team. So are we. The window of opportunity is really small against defensive teams. It’s just finding those windows.”
The Thunder used a 13-2 run midway through the first quarter to take a 10-point lead, its largest of the game, but all of that changed with the first possession of the second period. Boston got four shots at the rim on that possession, setting a tone of second chances that permeated through the quarter. In fact, the Thunder got outrebounded by 10 in the second quarter alone, allowing all 7 of the Celtics’ second chance points for the game during a 19-6 stretch in Boston’s favor. “You always look at the plays we could have really controlled: transition, offensive rebounds, those sorts of plays,” Adams noted, before explaining that rotations on defense and proper box outs could have done the trick.
“It’s understanding where to hit them,” Adams began. “If you run up top, you’ll just lose. It’s just physics. Attack their knees and drive them out, that puts you in a better position.”
Still, the Thunder stayed resilient and made a charge towards the end of both halves. In fact, it was late in the fourth quarter that the Thunder finally got some timely shot-making that helped generate that fragile 6-point lead. In a 2 minute, 11 second span, George dribbled into a three-pointer, Westbrook found Anthony on a pair of three-pointers and then Anthony attacked and hit Corey Brewer in the corner for a three-pointer to make it 93-87 with 1:53 remaining.
“You just have to find a way to open the game up. I thought we did that,” George explained. “They came back with some plays, some runs of their own. At that point it was just two teams duking it out, playing ball.”
“I know for us, we hit a couple big shots to kind of open the gap up a little bit,” Anthony said. “They started playing a little bit desperate.”
Despite that three-point barrage, the Thunder was unable to separate more from Boston. It seems the shot-making suddenly became contagious, as Shane Larkin, Tatum and Terry Rozier each hit three-pointers, while Greg Monroe added a pair of buckets in the paint to keep Boston within striking distance.
As the Thunder missed free throws in the final minute, Boston got a way-too-easy driving layup from Tatum and a dribble-up 28-foot three-pointer from Rozier to keep the pressure on. That’s when Morris made the Anthony and the Thunder pay for not icing the game at the foul line with his desperate heave.
Despite going 1-1 on this road trip against the Eastern Conference’s two best teams, the Thunder left Boston knowing that could have easily been a 2-0 mark. With all the veterans lining the roster, however, this is a team who won’t let a tough loss linger, or impact the next game.
“Get on the plane, get ready for the next one,” Westbrook stated.
“It’s easy to beat yourself up about it. I’m pretty sure I’ll beat myself up about it tonight,” Anthony admitted. “Tomorrow is a new day. There’s no need to harp on it or let it linger. It happened. I had an opportunity to make two free throws. I missed them. I’m pretty sure I’ll get that opportunity again.”
Highlights: Thunder at Celtics
By the Numbers
19-for-29 – Free throw shooting numbers for the Thunder on the night, amounting to just 65.5 percent
35-10 – Boston’s edge in bench scoring in the game, led by 17 by Greg Monroe and 13 from Shane Larkin
52-44 – The Celtics’ rebounding advantage on the night, aided by 11 offensive rebounds
The Last Word
“He’ll be a legend in this league when it’s all said and done. In moments like this, not many times we can say he’s missed two free throws. There’s nothing that needs to be said. He knows we got his back. He knows we’re behind him. That same moment, we all trust him at that line. It just so happened that he missed those two.” – forward Paul George on Carmelo Anthony