There are going to be nights like this for the Celtics, frustrating, infuriating, maddening nights when it looks like the emergency brake has been pulled on progress. It’s part of the growing pains for the Green and with the current roster the lamentable losses will be woven into the fabric of the season along with the encouraging wins.
Wednesday night was one of those wince-worthy affairs on Causeway Street, as the Celtics fell, 109-94, to a depleted Oklahoma City Thunder squad that had both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook hors de hoops, was playing its second game in two nights, and hadn’t won a road game this season (0-5).
The only way the second half could have been tougher on the eyes of the Parishioners of the Parquet at TD Garden would have been if the Celtics were wearing those heretical gray, sleeved alternate uniforms, the ones that look like they were just pulled out of a cement mixer.
The second half was tough to watch regardless of sartorial selection, as the young Celtics allowed 67 points and saw the Thunder shoot 73.7 percent (14 of 19) in the fourth quarter. The goodwill from Saturday night’s win over the Bulls becoming a memory.
“We let one slip away,” said Rajon Rondo, who finished a rebound shy of a triple-double (20 points, 12 assists, and 9 rebounds) in his first game after having the screws removed from his fractured left hand. “They’re coming off a back-to-back. They got in around 3 in the morning. We’ve been waiting. It’s a disappointing loss, but we have to move forward.”
Sometimes moving forward is taking two steps forward and one step back. This was a step back for the Celtics, who didn’t trail until there were 2 minutes and 38 seconds left in the third quarter and then watched Oklahoma City leave them in the Dust Bowl in the fourth quarter.
But there will be a game this season against an NBA contender in which the Celtics will look like their rebuild is well ahead of schedule. Buckle up for the emotional turbulence.
Before the game coach Brad Stevens said he thought the Celtics’ offense wasn’t as good as the numbers indicated — Boston came in second in the league in points per game and fifth in field goal percentage. He also said he didn’t think the defense was as bad as the numbers indicated. The Celtics entered Wednesday night’s game 29th in the league in 3-point field goal defense and 26th overall in opponent field goal percentage.
He was right about the offense.
Before the game, Thunder coach Scott Brooks fretted about his team having to figure ways to manufacture points. They mass-produced them in the second half.
Former Boston College star Reggie Jackson and NBA vagabond Anthony Morrow did a fair impersonation of Westbrook and Durant in the second half. Jackson scored 20 of his 28 points after the break. Morrow dropped 22 of his 28 points in the second half, including a virtuoso 8-for-8, 19-point performance in the fourth.
“The bottom line is we didn’t guard them at all in the second half,” said Stevens. “They had a lot to do with that. They ran good stuff and made shots. Credit to them. We talked about guys like Morrow. If you ever leave Morrow he is going to score. He scored a lot. We let the bigs roam down the lane and dunk it a couple of times. Sixty-seven points in a half is pretty poor.”
The other issue for the Celtics is that they continue to be seduced by the siren song of the 3-point shot. They hoisted up 19 in the first half, hitting just 5 and were 9 for 33 for the game. They are averaging 26.1 attempts per game and are shooting 30 percent.
The Celtics rewarded an under-manned OKC team for playing zone defense.
In the first quarter, the Celtics came down on a three-on-three in transition and Rondo fed a lane-filling Jared Sullinger, who looked like he could have continued on to the hoop and challenged Serge Ibaka. Instead, Sullinger kicked it out to Avery Bradley, who missed a corner three.
In the new-age, NBA this is absolutely the right play members of the corner-3-pointer-loving analytics crowd will tell you — not for every team, though.
The sample size is small at only seven games, but the Celtics, who nearly set an NBA record for 3-point futility earlier this season in Houston, do not appear to be a team that should fire away from beyond the arc.
Ray Allen is not walking through that door.
The Celtics looked good in the first half, holding the Thunder and old friend Kendrick Perkins down. They led by as many as 15 in the first quarter and were ahead, 51-42, at the half.
But the Celtics found themselves trailing, 76-72, at the end of three quarters after Jackson drained a 3-pointer taken from Cleveland Circle with 00.3 seconds left in the third.
The loss was tougher to stomach because it was against a diminished Oklahoma City team.
The Thunder are trying to tread water until Durant and Westbrook return from injury. Durant is out with a Jones fracture in his right foot. He had surgery on Oct. 16.
Westbrook fractured his right hand on Oct. 30, hitting it on Perkins’s elbow. Before the game, he was on the court wearing a splint and dunking the ball lefthanded. Westbrook spent his 26th birthday as a spectator instead of facing off with Rondo in a pointed point guard duel.
The loss was a lesson for the Celtics.
“I don’t need to learn it,” said Stevens. “There are only a couple of guys that have been in the league less than me. Hopefully, it’s not something we have to learn.”
Unfortunately, nights like this are going to be part of the Celtics’ NBA lesson plan.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.