The ball idled in mid-air, hovering over midcourt as it tantalized Boston Celtics defenders. In attempting to break the press, the Thunder hung a pass out on the line that could have resulted in a turnover. Darius Bazley bullied his way into position, leapt into the air and wrenched the ball quickly into the front court.
The Thunder was perched gingerly atop a 3-point lead with under 40 seconds to play. It would have been understandable for Bazley to try to just find an empty space on the court and dribble out some more clock. Instead of timidness he chose temerity, bursting into the lane as Celtics defenders tried to catch up on the way to a ferocious one-handed dunk.
The slam didn’t get the Thunder completely out of the woods on its way to a 119-115 win, but it opened up a mighty clearing. The aggressiveness was a symbol of the Thunder’s steadfastness during a rough month of close losses and blowouts, turnovers and missed rotations. It was doubling down on the mantra this Thunder team has had within games and between them – to sprint through the finish line regardless of what the scoreboard says.
“That’s how we had to finish the game,” Bazley’s teammate Lu Dort said. “The way (Bazley) went up strong was good for the team.”
In Boston on Tuesday night, the Thunder’s unwavering approach of playing with force, attacking the paint, sharing the ball and making hustle plays was rewarded with a victory. Even if the Celtics’ comeback had been too much of a gut-check for this young Thunder squad to handle, head coach Mark Daigneault would have felt good about the tenacity his team showed.
Over the final 10 minutes of action, the Thunder separated, the Celtics rallied and then OKC held on. It was in the little moments of extra energy that made the difference. Despite flying into Boston from Philadelphia late last night to face a rested team that’s likely headed for the playoffs, the Thunder seemed to have the juice, that spring in the legs that typically bests teams that are weary – be it physically, mentally or emotionally.
Center Tony Bradley kept an offensive possession alive for a tap out, leading to a Ty Jerome 3-pointer from somewhere in Boston’s north end. On back-to-back possessions under 7 minutes, Bazley attacked the rim with abandon, accepting contact but missing on his first attempt only to leap right back up and put the ball in, making Celtics defenders look like bystanders.
“(Bazley) was aggressive all night. He took it to another level in the 2nd half,” said Daigneault. “A couple plays leading into their timeout were really physical plays, really energetic plays, really aggressive plays.”
After a Boston timeout, Bazley was again making hustle plays, diving on the floor for a loose ball. He was followed by his teammate Isaiah Roby, who dove and snagged a loose ball and then forced a jump ball on consecutive possessions.
“The competitive spirit was 48 minutes long. We hung in there,” said Daigneault. “There were a lot of ups and downs in the game like there always are. The guys did a great job down the stretch and in the situational parts of the game.”
Bazley’s dunk with 38.6 seconds remaining gave the Thunder some cushion, but after four Boston free throws the Thunder needed to break the press once again. Learning from previous backcourt escapes that either went awry or narrowly succeeded, this time Daigneault’s group of youngsters broke Boston’s pressure to perfection, with rookie Théo Maledon pushing up floor and finding Bazley on a diagonal pass that freed up Roby for a cutting, unharried dunk.
With 3.2 seconds remaining, the Celtics had one final chance to rip a sweet victory away from the Thunder. Boston guard Evan Fournier intentionally missed a free throw, but Daigneault had wisely inserted Roby and Tony Bradley into the game for some extra muscle on the lane lines. Roby sealed Celtics energizer bunny Marcus Smart on a box out, secured the rebound with both hands while getting clobbered and coolly walked up the floor to the free throw line.
“Coach put me and Tony in knowing they were going to make the first and miss the second,” Roby said. “(Fournier) got the ball really fast and put it up quick. The coaching staff made us ready for it.”
Roby put in both free throws and the Thunder walked off the court in each other’s arms. After a long month, a short night of sleep and a frantic fourth quarter, the Thunder returned to Oklahoma City with a well-earned win.