It was nearly the perfect start. A punch in the mouth, and a way to make a statement to open a game. The Thunder just wasn’t ready for the recoil.
An 11-2 Thunder burst to begin Thursday night’s game led to a dominant first quarter that held the Boston Celtics to just 16 points, which rolled into a first half effort that held the visitors to just 34 points, season low for Thunder opponents. Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club was pushing the pace when appropriate, hitting ahead on outlet passes for streaking teammates.
On defense, with Jerami Grant in the starting lineup in place of Patrick Patterson, for matchup reasons, the Thunder was able to switch everything 1-through-4, and it bunkered down and stayed tight in its pick-and-roll defense, crashing over on the release of a pass when the ball was trapped, but staying home on shooters when the ball was under control.
“We did a good job defensively making them shoot some tough ones,” said point guard Russell Westbrook.
By the halftime break, the Thunder had held the Celtics to 0-for-11 shooting from three-point range and 31.8 percent shooting overall. Boston missed some open ones in the first half, and Donovan knew those would start to drop over the final 24 minutes, but the Thunder got sloppy in the third quarter by overhelping in the lane, leaving three-point shooters open, including Gordon Hayward in the corner on the first possession, Kyrie Irving twice, Marcus Morris twice and Al Horford three times in 41 seconds.
“We just didn’t keep a body on them,” George said. “They walked into a couple good looks. Everything is a learning and teaching process for us. We’ll get better with that.”
“We were getting off the body on them, especially me,” said Steven Adams. “I messed up on a. couple of them, trying to help too much. I gotta restrict that.”
In total the Celtics went 9-of-13 from behind the arc in the third quarter, racking up a ridiculous 40 points, just one quarter after the Thunder allowed six fewer than that in the entire first half. From there on, it was a back-and-forth game, with the Thunder mostly on its heels aside from one crucial run.
Westbrook drove left around an Adams screen, using his peripheral vision to scope the scene, registering Alex Abrines at top of the key. The Spaniard buried a three-pointer, then the next possession, Westbrook found his sharpshooter in the corner for another triple. Two Paul George free throws later and the Thunder was up 94-85 with 4:22 to go, giving the Thunder All-Star 22 points on the night.
The Celtics outscored the Thunder 16-1 to close the game. A parade to the free throw line resulted in six Boston points over the ensuing two minutes, a relatively easy feat considering the Thunder was in the bonus at the 8:20 mark in the period. In the fourth, the Thunder was whistled for 12 fouls compared to just 5 for the Celtics.
“We fouled way, way too much in the quarter and we had a lot of fouls that were not even fouls that were at the basket or someone contesting a shot,” Donovan said. “We kept putting them to the free throw line.”
Those types of numbers are nearly impossible to overcome on their own, but the Thunder missing 10 straight jump shots to close out the game was the game’s death knell that rang again and again. With the game tied at 95 with 34.3 seconds to go, Boston drew up a wicked side out of bounds play and got that coveted swing-swing action into the corner for a Marcus Morris three-pointer.
Westbrook, who finished with 13 points, 15 rebounds and 8 assists, had a chance to tie it on a three but it came up short, as did George’s three-pointer one possession later. The Celtics knocked down some late free throws, and the Thunder fell to 0-4 with a 101-95 defeat.
“That’s on me,” said Westbrook. “I take full responsibility in making sure that gotta we do what we need to do to win a game. I gotta do a better job of making sure we close the game.”
On a macro level, this was a game of missed opportunities, and there was a litany of them beyond just the 16-point first half lead, and the 9-point edge in the final frame. The most glaring of the miscues that prevented the Thunder from rolling those advantages to a victory came at the free throw line.
Donovan’s club went just 14-of-25 (56 percent) from the stripe, while the Celtics shot 24-of-33 (72.7 percent), including 15-of-18 in the fourth quarter. At this early stage of the season these are all lessons to be learned as the team comes together as a unit, but the urgency is high in the Thunder’s camp to digest all the information and apply it.
“We’ve gained in a lot of areas, and we’ll continue to improve,” George said. “There’s 78 more. For us it’s one game at a time. Tomorrow we’re going to bury this game once we look at it on film and get ready for Phoenix. Just take it one day, one game at a time.”
Highlights: Thunder vs. Celtics - 10/25