It was just a few weeks ago that the sight of Jayson Tatum isolating against a smaller defender with a chance to win a game made the actual shot feel like a formality. But as the Celtics were quick to remind everyone following their 105-104 loss to the Thunder on Sunday, good fortunes and good vibes can shift quickly.
Tatum, who recently returned from a Western Conference road trip in which he seemingly could not miss, now finds himself in a shooting rut. In this case, he turned and looked directly over the head of the 6-foot Chris Paul, and then his jumper grazed the front of the rim, giving Oklahoma City an improbable win after it clawed back from an 18-point deficit.
Tatum hardly lost the game for Boston, of course. But his miss was the latest indicator of how swiftly fortunes can shift and how fragile powerful surges can be.
“You can feel like you’re on top of the world one week,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, “and you can feel like the sky is falling the next.”
The Celtics have now lost four consecutive home games, and their march toward the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs has stalled. However, two of the losses came in overtime, and this one was by a single point after a wild series of events in the final seconds. The results are what matter, but the Celtics are at least confident that they are not too far off from resuming their charge.
“We have to try to not get too high on the highs or too low on the lows, and this is a low for us,” forward Gordon Hayward said. “We have to try to build ourselves, crawl ourselves back out of it. I think we’ll find it again. We’re still the same team. We’ve just got to lift each other up.”
On Sunday, point guard Kemba Walker needed a pick-me-up most of all. The Celtics were clinging to a 104-103 lead in the final minute when Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams missed a pair of free throws.
Paul chased down the rebound and had another chance, but his shot was off and Adams batted the ball out of bounds near Boston’s bench, putting the Celtics in a good position with just 13.8 seconds left.
The Celtics could have used their last timeout and advanced the ball to the frontcourt. Instead, the inbounds pass came to Walker, who was defended closely by Paul as he dribbled backward before making a quick turn to push upcourt. The problem was that the Thunder’s Dennis Schroder anticipated this play and swooped in for a steal and a layup with 8.5 seconds remaining.
“The right reaction by Kemba to try to get it out and then get to the other side of the court,” Stevens said. “99.999 percent of the time he’s able to turn the corner and somebody has to chase him and foul him from behind. This time, he wasn’t able to do that.”
Walker has struggled since returning after a five-game absence due to knee soreness. Minutes restrictions have made it more difficult for him to find a rhythm, and he has simply not been able to have his way with defenses as he did earlier this year. He made just 4 of 14 shots and had 14 points Sunday.
“I think I'm getting some pretty good looks,” Walker said. “They just aren't going down. I'm going to keep working towards it and get better. I'll be there for my teammates for sure. It's only my third game back. It's tough for me because I know I can make those shots that I'm taking.”
Walker’s most costly miss came with less than three minutes left, after he sliced through the lane for a wide open layup that he has made thousands of times. On the next possession, Tatum missed a slightly more difficult but still quite makeable layup, and on the play after that Marcus Smart charged forward for a layup and watched the ball slip from his grasp.
Still, Boston had a chance. A Daniel Theis dunk pulled it within 103-102, and then Tatum blocked a Schroder 3-pointer and finished the play with a layup that put the Celtics in front. But they would not score again.
“I mean, it's just kind of a sickening feeling with this game and the Brooklyn game,” Stevens said. “This is a little bit different, but those are games you can get. So you've got to figure out a way to get them.”
While the execution in the final moments was grisly, the Celtics’ collapse can really be traced back to the final minute of the second quarter. During one dominant three-minute stretch they made five consecutive 3-pointers, the last a Hayward dart that gave them a 63-45 lead with 1:08 left.
But Boston closed the quarter carelessly, with a pair of turnovers that sparked a 7-0 Oklahoma City run that made the deficit considerably more manageable.
“We loosened up defensively, kind of let our guard down a little bit and they put a run on us,” Hayward said. “That was huge. … We’ve got to be better at the end of quarters, end of games obviously too.”
The Celtics shot just 38.1 percent from the floor and committed 10 turnovers in the second half. Tatum finished 8 for 22 and is now just 35 for 92 since returning from the Western Conference road trip. Paul, who worked out with Tatum last summer, requested the chance to guard him on that final possession, and he came out on top.
“I just have to be better,” Tatum said. “I could go into detail about everything you do, but you just have to be better.”