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Once again, Celtics fritter big lead, but hold on to finish off Oklahoma City

Marcus Smart and the Celtics had things well in hand for most of Saturday night against Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and visiting Oklahoma City.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

On Friday night, Bill Russell, LeBron James, Paul Pierce, and national television cameras were all at TD Garden for the Celtics spotlight game against the Lakers. On Saturday night, the Thunder came to town with a roster that probably makes fans check their programs for identification purposes, and life was mostly back to normal.

That could have been dangerous for the Celtics. Head coach Ime Udoka said he told his players that the win over Los Angeles would be meaningless if it wasn’t followed up with a strong performance against Oklahoma City. He said they needed to respect every opponent, regardless of whether their teams include LeBron or not.


For most of this night, that message seemed to resonate. The Celtics surged ahead by 25 points in the third quarter and still led by 12 with less than a minute left in their 111-105 win.

The final moments became slightly tense, however. After the starters were replaced by third-stringers, the Thunder went on a quick 8-0 run to pull within 109-105 with 11.3 seconds left.

Jayson Tatum, who thought his night was over as he pedaled on an exercise bike about 20 feet from the court, was summoned back to the bench during a timeout, then sent back in the game with the rest of the starters to close out the win.

Jayson Tatum drives for 2 of his 33 points in the first quarter against the Thunder.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

It certainly wasn’t an ideal finish. But aside from that minor blip, Boston mostly dominated.

“We gave them the appropriate fear, respect for your opponent,” Udoka said. “They came out and handled it for the most part. We got a little sloppy at the end, but it’s not going to tarnish good back-to-back home wins.”

Tatum had 33 points and 8 rebounds to lead the Celtics. Dennis Schröder had 29 points and 6 assists, and Al Horford added 10 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists as the Celtics (9-8) pushed above .500 for the first time this season.


“I think we’re starting to understand the level that we need to play night in and night out,” Horford said. “We should never question our level of effort and commitment, and over the past games, that’s what’s been consistent. That’s something that, now that we have that there, now we can start building from there.”

Observations from the game:

⋅ The Celtics are still missing starters Jaylen Brown (hamstring) and Robert Williams (knee), so concerns about the bench could wash away when those two important pieces return. Still, the lack of production from the reserves has been noticeable.

Boston’s bench was outscored, 47-18, on Saturday, and second-year players Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard have been nonfactors. Nesmith missed his only shot and had a couple of defensive lapses, and the Celtics were outscored by 14 points during his 10 minutes on the floor. Pritchard, mired in a season-long shooting slump, did not play until the final minute.

Romeo Langford came off the bench to score just 2 points in 8 minutes, an example of the lack of offensive production the Celtics have been getting from their reserves.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

After the game, Udoka left open the possibility of some younger players getting extended playing time with the team’s G League affiliate in Maine.

“We’re looking for [bench] guys to step up and be consistent,” Udoka said, “and we need to find that.”

⋅ The Celtics’ ball movement and unselfishness were on display during a crisp first half. On one first-quarter possession, all five players had possession and made quick, precise passes as the ball rocketed around the perimeter. It ended when Tatum, who missed his first three 3-pointers, drilled an open one from the top of the key. Later, Schröder and Grant Williams completed a nice give-and-go that resulted in a Schröder mid-range shot.


Boston had 28 assists, its third-highest total of the season, and just seven turnovers, its lowest.

“The ball movement has been better the last few games,” Horford said. “I think we’re starting to understand what we need to do offensively and how we need to play.”

⋅ Grant Williams’s shooting has provided a substantial lift during Brown’s absence. He made 4 of 6 3-pointers and scored 14 points, and his play the last five games has erased the minor slump that preceded it.

Interestingly, defenses continue to mostly leave Williams open in the corners. If he continues to make them pay for that choice, opponents will have to adjust, and that will just create good opportunities elsewhere.

⋅ With the Celtics up by 23 midway through the third quarter, Marcus Smart sprawled across the floor and came up with a steal in the backcourt before firing a pass to Horford, who found Tatum for a dunk. Udoka had to be pleased to see that level of hustle with a score that lopsided, even if the fourth quarter didn’t quite unfold perfectly.

“That Smart play was so — it ignited everyone, no matter if it was on the court or off the court, the whole arena,” Grant Williams said.


⋅ Enes Kanter had played just 10 minutes all season prior to last Monday’s game against the Cavaliers. Even when Horford or Robert Williams were out, Udoka preferred to roll with reserve lineups that included Grant Williams or Jabari Parker at center. But Kanter has reclaimed the backup center role during Robert Williams’s absence, and he has been productive. The big man had 10 points and 10 rebounds in just 17 minutes.

Celtics reserve center Enes Kanter, used sparingly so far this season, scored 10 points in 17 minutes off the bench. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at Follow him @adamhimmelsbach.